Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science & Tech

Family Sues Federal Government over Infection Death at VA Hospital


A North Hills family filed suit against the federal government Monday for the death of Navy veteran William Nicklas, who died of Legionnaire's disease contracted at a Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital late last month.

The 87-year-old husband and father of three passed away on November 23, days after checking into the University Drive hospital in Oakland for health problems unrelated to Legionnaire's disease. Nicklas was one of five patients to contract the legionella pneumonia bacteria at the hospital over the past several months, but he was the only fatality.

The Nicklas family's lawyer said it appears that the VA failed to clean its water system of the bacteria despite the previous Legionnaire's illnesses there, and despite warnings from experts. Attorney Harry Cohen said the family filed suit in order to find out why the VA didn't do more to prevent the spread of the disease. Cohen said the federal government will have six months to respond to the family's filing of a Form 95 federal torts claim of wrongful death.

"[The federal government] can investigate it, they can attempt to resolve it, they can settle it, or they can deny it," said Cohen. "After a period of time, then the party can file in the federal district court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Then, it proceeds to a trial by a judge, rather than a trial by jury."

Cohen did not say how much the family is seeking in monetary damages, but said the lawsuit was more about finding answers and increasing public awareness.

"He Was Just A Fantastic Man"

William Nicklas' three sons remembered him on Monday as a dedicated family man and veteran who was "honored" to seek medical care at the VA hospital this fall.

David Nicklas, youngest son of the victim, said that his father had Medicare and supplemental insurance, and could have sought medical care almost anywhere in the region. Instead, William Nicklas chose to check in to the VA hospital because he believed he "could receive the best care in the world" there.

"We trusted, he trusted that the VA would give him the best care, and unfortunately the VA betrayed that trust," said David Nicklas.

David Nicklas, also a Navy veteran, said he would probably no longer use VA hospitals, and wants to publicize the case of his father's death to spread the word to other veterans.

"He was just a fantastic man," said eldest son Robert Nicklas. "He would put his flag up in the morning, take it down at night, and he was so proud of that."

William Nicklas joined the Navy in 1944, and served as a tail gunner for a rescue plane in the south Pacific Ocean during World War II. After the war, he returned home to Allison Park, where he launched an auto repair business and started a family.

William first sought care at the VA for shortness of breath in October. He returned to the hospital in early November for problems with his liver, and on November 17 was told he had contracted an infection. Four days later, VA doctors informed the Nicklas family that the bacteria was Legionnaire's disease, and William Nicklas died of the sickness the day after Thanksgiving.