I’m glad to hear that the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh appears to have peaked. But with two deaths, 44 confirmed cases and 47 suspected cases still being monitored, the incident is definitely not over.
Indeed, the implications of the outbreak are likely to rumble on for years.
Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease usually originate in large buildings that have complex water supply and air conditioning systems, such as hospitals and hotels. The dangers of the disease are well-known to the owners of these buildings and they have a duty of care to inspect, monitor and maintain their water systems to prevent contamination.
If a building owner is found to have used faulty equipment or failed to monitor their systems adequately, they can be prosecuted. They can also be held liable to pay compensation to anyone who suffers personal injury or loss as a result of contracting the disease.
An Incident Management Team has been set up to investigate the Edinburgh outbreak, and as part of this the Health & Safety Executive has already served Improvement Notices on a distillery and a pharmaceutical company. However, the HSE stresses that neither company has been identified as the source of the outbreak and it is continuing to inspect other premises in the area.
The problem for the HSE – and for those affected by the disease – is that because Legionnaires’ disease is usually contracted in public places, it is often very difficult to establish where the disease originally came from. If you cannot find out where the outbreak began then it is very difficult to hold anyone accountable.
It is not an insurmountable problem though. According to my friends at Thompsons Solicitors, if you can establish a pattern and demonstrate this to the courts – for example, by identifying a number of people falling ill with the disease from the same place – then a successful prosecution or compensation claim can be made.
It is quite a technical, time-consuming process, but if it makes sure that building owners and operators do more to protect the public in the future, then it’s worth it, so far as I’m concerned.