This past week has seen an outbreak of legionella in buildings in the South Bronx section of New York City. Legionella is the bacterium that causes legionnaires disease and flourishes in the water of air conditioning and central heating systems. Utmost concern is for the health and safety of building residents, and pending New York City regulations address this concern by imposing on building owners new registration, testing, and maintenance requirements. Given the number of deaths and hospitalizations already reported, building owners and their insurers should be aware of the following facts and suggestions:
1. There have been fewer than a dozen reported legionella/personal injury decisions in New York State in the last decade, and far fewer such decisions involving residential buildings. As in any toxic tort lawsuit, the legionella claimant will have the burden of proving that the building owner negligently allowed a toxin to develop (namely, legionella), and that the claimant was exposed to the toxin in an amount that caused injury to the claimant -- two very difficult though not impossible burdens to meet. (For a detailed discussion of the burden of proving causation in toxic tort lawsuits, see our prior blog entry titled Mold up in the Air: Settled.)
2. A building owner must report to its insurance carrier immediately any notice of bodily injury or property damage arising from the outbreak. A building owner should also notify its HVAC/cooling tower contractor, and the insurer for that contractor, of the incident(s).
3. The insurance carrier for its part must assemble a pre-lawsuit response team -- legal, engineering, medical, and environmental -- to investigate the premises and establish the facts.
4. New York City is now inspecting and testing building cooling systems. As these test results will be admissible in any subsequent lawsuit, building owners (or, preferably, their insurance carriers) should retain environmental consultants to photograph, monitor, and report on how the City performs the testing.
5. Finally, if the cooling tower or HVAC system is going to be dismantled or modified significantly, care should be taken to avoid a spoliation penalty. (For a detailed discussion of this topic, see our prior blog entry titled Spoiling the Evidence, Spoiling the Case.)