When Marcia Blanar stayed at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys during the summer, a decorative fountain surrounded by benches “was raging with active Legionella,” according to a lawsuit filed on her behalf earlier this month in Monroe County Circuit Court.
Legionella, a type of bacteria, can cause Legionnaires’ Disease. The disease can cause a severe lung infection and is contracted by breathing in infected water, such as a spray of water. Blanar, of Maryland, “developed a fever and uncharacteristic fatigue,” upon returning from her vacation, her attorney Ira Leesfield wrote in the lawsuit filed Oct. 1 in the Monroe County court.
“Foremost, it’s to defend our clients’ rights for being injured due to what we allege is the negligence of the resort,” said Thomas Graham, an attorney working with Leesfield. ”Their duty is to make sure the premises is safe and maintained for guests to enjoy and there are protocols that can be implemented so waterborne illnesses will not impact guests staying at resort.”
Stayed at Hawks Cay in July
Blanar tested positive for Legionnaires’ Disease shortly after her stay at the sprawling resort on Duck Key, which was from June 30 to July 6, according to the suit, which was first reported by The Key West Citizen.
“Testing of the subject fountain by the Florida Department of Health revealed the presence of the Legionella bacteria that caused Ms. Blanar to fall violently ill with Legionnaires’ Disease,” Leesfield wrote in the suit.
Blanar is seeking an excess of $30,000 after becoming “extremely ill.”
And she wasn’t the only person who got sick, said attorney Patrick Kelleher, who is representing a client who he said is still recovering from the disease. He said he is preparing a lawsuit against Hawks Cay on behalf of MaryAnn Miller of Naples. He said she stayed at Hawks Cay the same weekend Blanar was there. Miller, Kelleher said, was also diagnosed with COVID-19 while being treated for Legionnaires’ Disease.
“She is fighting for her life,” Kelleher said. “She is still not well.”
Citing privacy laws, the health department in Monroe County said it could not comment on the case involving Hawks Cay.
Letter from Monroe Health Department
In a letter dated July 28, Bob Eadie, director of the Monroe County Health Department, told Hawks Cay management that at least two people had contracted Legionnaires’ Disease. At that point, water samples from the property were in the process of being tested, but Eadie provided recommendations for “immediate remediation” including developing a water management plan and thoroughly cleaning sink and fountain fixtures.
In August, Hawks Cay reported to the health department that management decided to “disassemble the fountain feature permanently.” The fountain was going to be filled with sand and then covered in rock, according to health department documents.
In a statement, Hawks Cay said it was “committed to providing outstanding guest experiences and to maintaining a safe environment for guests and staff.”
“The incident in question was immediately rectified and confirmed as such by the appropriate health and regulatory authorities,” the company said. “As a matter of respectful policy, we do not elaborate on matters in litigation.”
According to Blanar’s suit, Hawks Cay “breached its duty” to maintain the fountain and prevent the bacteria from growing in the water system.
Flu-like symptoms from Legionnaires’ Disease
Legionnaires’ Disease can cause flu-like symptoms, including coughing, aching muscles and headaches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease are often associated with large or complex water-systems, like those found in hospitals, hotels, and cruise ships,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its toolkit on Legionnaires’ disease.
In 2020, there was an outbreak of the disease at a women’s work camp at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, in Central Florida. At least 20 woman became sick from the bacteria.
At the time, David Krause, who has a Ph.D. in toxicology and was the former state toxicologist at Florida Department of Health from 2008-2011, told the Herald that Legionnaires’ is most commonly contracted by people with weakened immune systems, who smoke or have other problems, including kidney disease. He said prison outbreaks were unusual and it was more likely there would be outbreaks at hospitals and nursing homes.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Legionnaires’ Disease “is the leading cause of reported waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States.”