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Policy: Law

1st lawsuit filed over hepatitis C outbreak in ND

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News,Business,North Dakota,Law,Civil Suits

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Two people who contracted hepatitis C at a Minot nursing home last year have filed the first lawsuit stemming from the outbreak against the care facility linked to the potentially fatal illness, and the federal lawsuit eventually might cover all 44 victims.

John Fenner, 78, and Lilas Guttormson, 84, are seeking unspecified monetary damages from ManorCare Health Services. Their attorneys also are seeking to make the lawsuit a class action. If a judge approves that, the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Bismarck late Wednesday would be expanded to cover all of the people infected with the virus that can cause chronic liver problems and even death.

All of the people who were infected had been at the ManorCare nursing home in Minot. Though no one died in the outbreak, it accounted for one-fourth of all hepatitis C infections in the country since 2008, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The median age of the victims was 84.

"It was a very large outbreak of hepatitis C, and it just doesn't happen by accident," plaintiffs' attorney Mike Miller told The AP. All 44 people who were infected are now dealing with chronic problems, he said.

ManorCare spokeswoman Julie Beckert says the lawsuit is premature in light of the state Health Department's preliminary report on the outbreak, which said neither the state nor the CDC could pinpoint how the patients were infected.

Officials did say analysis suggested the infection might have been associated with foot care, nail care services or blood services. Health officials say about one-third of all hepatitis C investigations fail to find an exact cause. The Health Department's final report is expected this summer. The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation also is looking into the outbreak, but won't comment on the ongoing investigation.

Miller said he hopes an exact cause is pinpointed but that the lawsuit does not depend on it. The lawsuit contends that ManorCare failed to live up to both its own care standards as well as state and federal law.

"ManorCare flagrantly violated its fundamental duty to protect its patients and residents, and infected them with a deadly and debilitating disease that could have been prevented by even the most rudimentary of care," the lawsuit states.

Beckert said in a statement that ManorCare "has been very cooperative and proactive in making sure that we are following our infection control process to proactively curb and prevent the spread of any infection, bacteria or virus. We continue to work with the local health authorities to protect our residents and employees."

Miller said he hopes to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

"It certainly would be better if ManorCare steps up to the plate here and says, 'We're at fault, we acknowledge it,'" he said.

The defendants in the lawsuit are ManorCare of Minot ND LLC, which does business as ManorCare Health Services, and HCR ManorCare Medical Services of Florida LLC, which is headquartered in Toledo.

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