SEATTLE — The six patients came from as far as Alaska. They ranged in age from a 17-year-old girl to a 2-month-old boy. Binding them together: harm they endured after a stay at Seattle Children’s hospital, according to three lawsuits filed Monday.
The complaints against Children’s begin to tell the human stories behind the failures its executives disclosed two weeks ago, acknowledging the hospital’s air-handling system likely led to mold-based infections in 14 patients over 18 years. Six of those patients died.
As the hospital’s operating rooms remain closed, lawyers in one of those lawsuits claim the number of affected patients is much higher — “dozens if not hundreds,” attorney Brad Moore said.
That lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of four children or their estates, all of whom claim they were sickened by the mold, known as Aspergillus, at the hospital between 2005 and 2017. None was older than 11.
The family of an 11-year-old boy filed a separate lawsuit claiming he was infected during surgery in March 2019 with Aspergillus, which wasn’t diagnosed until May 2019.
A third lawsuit alleges that a 4-year-old boy required a second brain surgery in May to remove a synthetic patch because Children’s deemed him to be at “high risk for Aspergillus mold exposure during his surgery.”
“We are incredibly sorry for the hurt experienced by these families and regret that recent developments have caused additional grief,” said hospital spokeswoman Kathryn Mueller. “Out of respect for privacy, we do not intend to share details about our patients or comment on specific cases or legal action.”
Children’s is racing to revamp its air-handling system to control the mold problem that it now says dates back to 2001. It is installing custom-built air filtration systems in each operating room, which hospital CEO Dr. Jeff Sperring called “the highest level of filtration found in operating rooms today.”
While the hospital now says its struggles with Aspergillus date back nearly two decades, they only became widely known this year. In 2007 Children’s published an internal investigation of three Aspergillus infections and concluded they were isolated incidents, and unlikely caused by airborne mold in operating rooms.
Aspergillus is a common mold that most people breathe daily without getting sick, but its risk to hospital patients has been known for decades. Patients with lung disease or weakened immune systems — especially organ- or stem-cell transplant patients — are at higher risk of developing Aspergillosis. In the most serious cases, symptoms range from a fever to coughing up blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only in May, after Children’s identified a series of recent Aspergillus infections did it publicly announce it was closing operating rooms.
Last month, Children’s again said it was closing some operating rooms, then all of its operating rooms, as it installs a custom-built air-filtration system.
The family of one patient, a teenage football player, filed suit in late October, alleging the hospital “failed to take reasonably prudent measures to prevent Aspergillus from infecting” their son, leaving him disabled.
Children’s legal exposure escalated with the filing Monday of the three separate lawsuits in King County Superior Court, which span cases over more than a decade.
The lawsuit seeking class-action status alleges that hospital management engaged in a yearslong “cover-up, designed to reassure its patients, doctors, nurses, and the public that its premises were safe, when in fact they were not.”
The youngest of the patients, Logan Shaffer, was born with half a heart. After cardiac surgery in 2005, he suffered an aneurysm caused by an Aspergillus infection, according to the lawsuit. He died the next month.
Ian Gunnell, an 11-year-old boy, was treated at Children’s in 2008 for a rare form of blood-cell cancer. After surgery he was infected with Aspergillus that caused an eye infection and interfered with his cancer treatment, the lawsuit contends. It doesn’t claim that the infection caused his death the next year.
Aiden Wills, age 3, came to Children’s for a rare disorder that required a bone-marrow transplant. After an operation in January 2009, he was diagnosed with an Aspergillus infection that hampered his treatment, according to the lawsuit. He died two months later.
In 2011, Whitney Stettler, then a 17-year-old girl living in Alaska, came to Children’s to treat her leukemia. After undergoing surgery she contracted an Aspergillus infection and went into a coma before eventually stabilizing, according to the lawsuit.
It’s unclear if the patients are among the 14 cases Children’s has disclosed. Those 14 cover only patients who were infected with Aspergillus during surgery, but the lawsuit seeks any patient who contracted any form of Aspergillus-related illness at the hospital.
One of the lawyers, John Layman, sued Children’s in 2005 alleging that the hospital’s air-filtration system led to a young girl’s Aspergillus infection. Attorneys for Children’s vigorously disputed that allegation at the time, arguing the cause of the infection was unclear. That lawsuit, after three years of litigation, was settled out of court, with undisclosed terms.
Layman said Monday that he was angry and appalled at the hospital’s stunning about-face in acknowledging the air-handling system was at the root of the ongoing Aspergillus problems.
He accused the hospital of “a systemic cultural apathy that starts at the very top, and the culture needs to be changed.”
Layman and others stressed, however, that they are blaming executives and not doctors and nurses.
“Our sense is that most of the people who work at Seattle Children’s probably didn’t know about this history, and are there to fulfill the mission every single day,” said Corrie Yackulic, an attorney representing an 11-year-old Seattle boy in a separate lawsuit filed Monday. Yackulic stressed that her client did not have a weakened immune system this year when he was infected with the mold, a condition that has left him “in constant pain,” according to the suit.
In the third lawsuit filed Monday, a 4-year-old boy was brought to Children’s for brain surgery in May. Though he was recovering well, the hospital identified him as being a “high risk for Aspergillus mold exposure during his surgery,” according to the lawsuit. The boy was transferred to Harborview Medical Center where a patch was removed, a second brain surgery that was only necessary because of the potential Aspergillus exposure, the suit claims.