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Woman sues McHenry Villa over 2018 Legionnaires' disease diagnosis

A former McHenry Villa resident is suing the senior living center and several other companies, after she said she was exposed to dangerous bacteria and hospitalized for Legionnaires' disease in 2018.

Jean Marie Spears is seeking more than $50,000 in money damages from McHenry Villa Independent Senior Living Community and the company that manages the property, Health Dimensions Consulting, Inc. Also named as defendants in the suit are Midwest Chlorinating and Testing Inc.; Midwest Heating and Air Conditioning; McHenry Excavating Inc.; and McHenry Plumbing Inc.

"We care deeply about the well-being of everyone who lives and works at McHenry Villa Independent Senior Living Community," McHenry Villa Executive Director Amanda Young said. "We have not been served, nor received any legal documents or information regarding this matter. Therefore, we are unable to comment at this time."

The lawsuit, filed with the McHenry County Circuit Clerk's Office Friday, did not appear to have been served to any of the defendants as of Tuesday afternoon. Representatives from Health Dimensions Group, McHenry Excavating, McHenry Heating and Air and McHenry Plumbing all declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation and insurance disputes.

Midwest Chlorinating and Testing Inc. could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Spears' attorney, Stephen J. Smalling, also could not be reached Tuesday.

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious lung infection that often is contracted by breathing in small droplets of water containing legionella bacteria, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The bacteria normally grow best in warm water environments and are more likely to affect people older than 50 years old.

Most people contract the disease by inhaling mist or vapor from a contaminated water source, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. It is not contracted by drinking contaminated water and does not spread by person-to-person contact.

According to a 23-page civil complaint, each of the named companies helped perform repairs or collected water samples for testing after a water main service pipe burst in McHenry Villa's basement on Sept. 3, 2018.

The burst caused flooding and led to the evacuation of McHenry Villa residents, many of whom are more than 65 years old, according to the lawsuit.

Spears alleges in the lawsuit that she was exposed to the legionella bacteria sometime during her return to McHenry Villa between October and November 2018. As a result, Spears suffered serious injury, pain and suffering and incurred continuing medical expenses, according to the lawsuit.

The Illinois Department of Public Health investigated an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at McHenry Villa in 2018 after three residents were confirmed to have contracted the disease, the department announced at the time. The department subsequently sent a notice of violation to McHenry Villa, located at 3516 Waukegan Road, regarding the “structural issues” with its plumbing system.

A McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman said she could not confirm that Spears was among those to have contracted Legionnaires' disease during this outbreak because of patient privacy.

In her complaint, Spears accuses the villa, its management company, and each of the service providers of failing to take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of bacteria. Those measures include maintaining proper water temperatures and biocide levels and the timely use of prevention methods such as chlorine flushing, according to the lawsuit.

They're also accused of failing to remove dead-end piping throughout the property, including in Spears' room, and failing to protect the water distribution system against back-flow.

"On Oct. 3, 2018, McHenry Plumbing Inc. performed work at McHenry Villa, including the removal of plumbing drains, noting that they were 100% clogged with debris and ran water through drains that were not rodded," according to the civil complaint.

Between September and November, laborers performed work on the property's drains, replaced water heaters, tanks and repaired water lines, according to the lawsuit.

When Spears returned to McHenry Villa, however, the bacteria wasn't properly eradicated, causing her to "inhale dangerous aerosolized water vapor contaminated with legionella bacteria," according to the lawsuit.

Illinois was home to 612 laboratory confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease in 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Of those, 43 cases were fatal and 569 patients survived.

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