What was supposed to be a vacation to consider Palm Springs as a retirement location turned into a nightmare for one San Jose couple.
Nancy Whitney said she and her husband of 30 years, Bill, stayed at the Hyatt Regency Suites in Palm Springs for three nights in October 2011. When they returned, she said they both began to feel sick.
“We had headaches and our stomach wasn’t feeling good. It just felt like the flu,” Nancy said.
She would recover. Her husband did not. Nancy said she took him to Washington Hospital in Fremont where doctors soon had questions.
“They asked us where we had been, if we had been on any trips, had we been to warm weather where there was air conditioning?” Nancy recalled. “And they already had a feeling it was Legionnaires' Disease.”
It was confirmed after the tests came back.
“Already it was through his system, even that fast, already, he was having internal bleeding,” she added.
Just five days later, Bill was gone.
“I didn’t get to say bye or anything to him,” said his widow, her eyes welling up with tears two-and-a-half years after losing the man she called her best friend. “I wanted really to find out what happened to my husband. I felt anger from him. He wanted to live.”
She learned that during the stay at the Hyatt, the two of them had been just about 50 yards from the hotel cooling towers. They had slept all three nights with the door open.
Nancy hired Jeff Lawson, an attorney with the Silicon Valley Law Group. Lawson said he rarely takes on this kind of case, but added he felt compelled after hearing her story.
“What we discovered later is in response to that, the hotel, Hyatt, went out and had their systems checked. They tested it and found dangerous levels of legionella bacteria in the cooling tower,” Lawson claimed.
According to court-submitted documents, the cooling towers would later show detectable levels of legionella bacteria, which build up as slime.
In fact, one testing date revealed that the level of bacteria approached 1,000 colony forming units per milliliter – that’s a level that OSHA says requires “immediate cleaning and/or biocide treatment. Take prompt stems to prevent employee exposure.”
Lawson also argues this was not the first time a hotel guest got sick from a legionella bacteria-contaminated source at the same Hyatt hotel in recent years.
“In 2006, there was another Legionnaire’s incident at the hotel where a guest had gotten sick and Hyatt had found out about it. They did testing of the hotel, they found legionella bacteria in the water system,” he said. “After that, they put in a water treatment system but they never cleaned and disinfected the cooling tower so it stayed the way it was. And then eventually Mr. Whitney goes there, gets sick and dies.”
The Hyatt issued the following response, but would not mention specifics or details because of the pending litigation:
“The safety and welfare of our guests and associates is a top priority for all Hyatt hotels, including Hyatt Palm Springs. Hyatt hotels take appropriate precautions in an effort to ensure guests and associates remain in a safe environment and follow rigorous procedures to ensure that all practices meet or exceed recommended health standards.”
However, it did tap a couple doctors as expert witnesses. One of them, Dr. Paul Edelstein, testified that Mr. Whitney was already high-risk for Legionnaire’s because he “suffered from diabetes, was elderly and obese,” describing them as “factors that increased his likelihood of acquiring Legionnaire’s Disease from any source.”
Moreover, Edelstein claimed it would be impossible to determine exactly where Bill got the Legionnaire’s because there was no record of any other case of it at the Palm Springs Hyatt in the months before and after Bill died.
Lawson tapped medical experts of his own who countered that and said considering the incubation period of two to 14 days and the likeliest sources of legionella bacteria build-up, it had to be the Hyatt.
“It wasn’t just an oversight. It was a complete failure of a very important safety system. People need to understand that Legionnaires' Disease is a deadly disease. It killed Mr. Whitney,” Lawson said. “It’s not that common in California although it’s growing a lot.”
According to the California Department of Public Health’s most recent data summary on Legionnaire’s, the rate of the disease skyrocketed 325 percent from 2001 to 2011.
It’s not transmitted person-to-person. Someone must breathe in the bacteria to get infected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is heavily under reported with only 3,000 cases reported to the agency each year out of up to 18,000 people who are hospitalized with it each year.
“You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t look around the hotel and say, ‘Oh, I think this place is dangerous.’ You have to rely on them complying with their safety systems,” Lawson said. “You are at their mercy.”
The Whitneys’ case is headed to a jury trial this year in Riverside County.
The irony of what happened isn’t lost on Nancy. The disease was named after an outbreak killed 29 people at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976. Bill, himself, was a legionnaire who had served in Vietnam.
“I miss my husband a lot. I miss him each day.”