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Seattle Children's faces lawsuits over patients who were infected with Aspergillus mold

Jenny Ingram

Seattle Children’s apologized last month and acknowledged that the number of children who had been infected with a dangerous mold was higher than previously disclosed and that the infections dated back to 2001. Now, the hospital faces mounting legal trouble.

On Monday, attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs – including the families of three children who died after becoming infected with Aspergillus mold. The fourth plaintiff is a young woman who became infected with Aspergillus after coming to Seattle Children’s from Alaska for leukemia treatment. She now lives in Battle Ground, the lawsuit said.

The attorneys in that case are seeking class-action status and filed it in King County Superior Court. Karen Koehler, one of the attorneys, said the hospital has long known about the contamination in its air-handling system and reached a confidential settlement in one case in 2008 as a way to prevent the public from finding out.

“This action is really targeted against the management (and) the building and engineering department of Seattle Children’s about a systemic cover-up that’s existed now for almost 19 years,” she said.

Two engineers gave declarations in the lawsuit that ended in the 2008 settlement and said that the hospital's air-handling system was badly neglected. They said the air intake screens “were plugged with debris, including dead and live birds and bird droppings.”

In an emailed statement, hospital spokeswoman Kathryn Mueller said Seattle Children’s does not intend to share details about patients or comment on specific cases or legal action due to privacy concerns.

“We are incredibly sorry for the hurt experienced by these families and regret that recent developments have caused additional grief,” she said. 

On Nov. 18, Seattle Children's CEO Jeff Sperring issued a statement of apology. He said that in addition to seven Aspergillus surgical-site infections and one patient death since the summer of 2018, which the hospital had previously disclosed, there were additional infections dating back to 2001.

“As we have looked more closely at our history of Aspergillus infections, we believe there are connections between recent and past infections,” he said. “Between 2001 and 2014, seven patients developed Aspergillus surgical site infections. Tragically, five of those patients died.”

Sperring said the hospital has temporarily closed most of its operating rooms and is upgrading its air-handling system, including installing a new rooftop air handler and high-efficiency particulate air filters in every operating room.

“We work hard to earn the trust of our community every day. We never take that for granted,” Sperring said. “We will do everything in our power to get this right, and we will not stop until we do.”

In addition to the lawsuit seeking class-action status, attorney Corrie Yackulic filed a case on behalf of an 11-year-old boy who was infected with Aspergillus when he underwent neurosurgery at the hospital this past March.