The widow of a Clinton, Md. postal worker who died after being exposed to anthrax in 2001 is suing the hospital that treated him, claiming it ignored signs that he suffered from the effects of the deadly spores until it was too late.
Southern Maryland Hospital Center, which denies the charges in court papers, has in turn filed a complaint against the federal government, saying it failed to protect workers at a Washington mail center that processed several anthrax-filled letters. If found liable in court, the hospital wants the government to shoulder some of the responsibility.
The lawsuit, which seeks an undisclosed sum, was originally filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court last year, but a hearing was scheduled last week in U.S. District Court on the hospital’s complaint. The federal government says it is not liable in the case.
Joseph Curseen died Oct. 22, 2001, one of two workers from the former Brentwood postal facility who were killed when they inhaled anthrax released from mail. Curseen operated a mail sorter on Oct. 15 when an anthrax-laced letter mailed to former Sen. Tom Daschle went through his machine. The letter was one of two that led authorities to shut down several Capitol Hill buildings after the mail was opened and anthrax was released into the air.
Curseen passed out and went to the hospital early Oct. 21 with a fever and other flu-like symptoms, according to the lawsuit. He was diagnosed with dehydration and sent home. The next day, his health deteriorating, Curseen returned to the emergency room. He was finally diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, but died at around noon.
The lawsuit claims doctors failed to detect the anthrax during his first visit even though several other cases from Brentwood and elsewhere had been linked to the mail and federal officials were warning medical staff to look for people with anthrax symptoms.
It alleges Curseen told emergency room workers he was employed at Brentwood and that the information appeared on his charts. But his blood was not tested and he did not receive other measures that could have detected the illness, the lawsuit states.
“Had the hospital run the appropriate tests, blood tests and so forth, they would have easily detected the rampant anthrax coursing through his body,” said Alan Rifkin, an attorney for Curseen’s widow, Celestine.
The lawsuit names the hospital, a contract company that employs the hospital’s emergency room staff and several individual doctors and nurses.
In court filings, the hospital says Curseen never identified himself as a postal worker from Brentwood. It claims he responded well to treatment for dehydration, and that Curseen said he felt “much better” before he was released Oct. 21.
The hospital also faults the U.S. Postal Service for not responding quickly enough to the anthrax threat, saying it waited too long to offer antibiotics to Brentwood workers that could have protected them against anthrax.
Postal officials deemed the plant safe for work even as Capitol Hill workers received antibiotics to counter anthrax released by letters processed at Brentwood. The hospital also faults the government for not warning it of the dangers Brentwood workers faced.
“The United States of America failed to close Brentwood, failed to administer prophylactic antibiotics to its employees (including the decedent) and maintained the appearance to the medical community (including the defendants) and the general public that there was no threat or danger,” the complaint reads.
An attorney for the hospital did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
In a motion to dismiss the hospital’s complaint, the Department of Justice argued that the federal government can’t be sued by Curseen’s estate, according to the Federal Employees Compensation Act. Therefore, it would not be liable as a third party for any damages a jury might deem are owed to Curseen by the hospital.
A Justice Department spokesman would not comment on the case.
A federal judge reached a similar conclusion in a $100 million class action lawsuit filed by Brentwood workers against the Postal Service. The case was thrown out last year when the judge ruled the only way the workers can pursue claims against the government is through the workers’ compensation process. That ruling has been appealed.
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