MIAMI — An Air Force veteran and his wife have won a combined $1.25 million lawsuit against the U.S. government because he likely contracted hepatitis C at the Miami Veterans Administration Medical Center.
U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled Wednesday after a nonjury trial that the center's staff didn't properly clean colonoscopy equipment, probably causing 70-year-old Robert Metzler's infection. The Miami Herald reports that Metzler and his wife, Lucy Ann Metzler, had sought $30 million.
A VA investigation showed that more than 11,000 veterans received colonoscopies with improperly-cleaned equipment between 2004 and 2009 at VA hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga.
Metzler received his colonoscopy in 2007. He had tested negative for hepatitis C the previous year but tested positive in 2009.
Hepatitis C can cause severe liver damage.
The hospitals used equipment that had been rinsed after each patient rather than being sterilized by steam and chemicals as called for by the manufacturer. Investigators who took apart water tubes on some of the equipment that was supposed to be clean and ready for use instead found "discolored liquid and debris."
The U.S. Attorney's Office, defending the VA, acknowledged the hospital "breached" a "duty of reasonable care" but denied the equipment caused Metzler's illness.
Dr. David Nelson, a board-certified doctor in internal medicine, testified that "there is less than a 0 percent chance" Metzler contracted hepatitis through his colonoscopy, according to the ruling. But the judge said the veteran had no other risks associated with contracting the virus.
"I realize that the chances of acquiring hepatitis C under these circumstances is slight," Jordan wrote. "But I find that there is nothing to preclude Mr. Metzler from being one of those two persons in a trillion or billion who do get the virus."
Many cases remain in court in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. A federal appeals court in Tennessee ruled earlier this year against a veteran who claimed he got hepatitis B from an unsanitary colonoscopy, saying he had missed the filing deadline by two months. Tennessee law says a claim must be filed within three years after the negligent act. The veteran filed his suit 10 months after he was notified by the VA, but more than three years after the procedure.
His attorneys had argued that the clock shouldn't have started until he was notified.
Florida law precludes lawsuits after four years and Georgia after five.