- Associated Press - Friday, October 23, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A federal lawsuit filed by two victims of the largest outbreak of hepatitis C in recent U.S. history has prompted a war of words and court filings involving a Minot nursing home and the city’s lone hospital over who’s to blame.

The nursing home now wants to see the hospital not only held accountable, but also punished. Trinity Hospital rejects the notion that it is responsible, and it promises to fight the attempt by ManorCare.

As their lawyers argue, the lead attorney for the hepatitis victims worries that the plight of his clients is being overshadowed.

“There’s just been this escalating finger-pointing between ManorCare and Trinity about who is to blame, and what’s lost is that there are a lot of elderly patients that really need relief, or at least their day in court,” attorney J. Gordon Rudd said.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause serious liver damage or even death. It’s transmitted when a non-infected person comes into contact with the blood of an infected person and the virus enters the body through a break in the skin.

Since August 2013, 52 cases have been linked to the Minot outbreak, with 48 tied to ManorCare nursing home residents or former residents, according to State Epidemiologist Tracy Miller. It’s the largest such outbreak in the nation in 13 years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State and federal health officials have not been able to pinpoint an exact cause of the Minot outbreak, but they suspect it might have been associated with foot care, nail care or blood services provided to ManorCare residents. The state Health Department investigation is ongoing.

Two victims, John Fenner and Lilas Guttormson, both of whom are over 75, sued ManorCare in federal court in April 2014, seeking unspecified money damages. Rudd is representing them, along with 20 other clients who have sued both ManorCare and Trinity in state court. No trial dates have been set, and Rudd said more lawsuits might be filed.

ManorCare contends the outbreak is tied to an employee with Trinity’s outpatient laboratory service who allegedly reused needles and committed “other breaches of fundamental infection control practices,” such as failing to wash her hands and using her teeth to help prepare equipment. The company last spring asked the federal court to award it compensatory damages for loss of reputation, loss of earnings, loss of employees and loss of patients.

ManorCare earlier this month amended its complaint to also seek punitive damages, saying in court documents that evidence showed Trinity was not only negligent but also tried to cover up its mistakes and made misleading statements about ManorCare. The company’s attorneys said Trinity’s conduct “was oppressive, malicious and fraudulent,” and that “Trinity’s appalling and unconscionable conduct infected at least 52 people with hepatitis C.”

Trinity denies responsibility. In court documents, it raised the prospect of other potential causes of the outbreak, such as ManorCare using “traveling or rotational employees” for health care services. It wants a judge to dismiss ManorCare’s claims and award the hospital attorney fees and damages.

ManorCare spokeswoman Julie Beckert and Trinity Health Vice President Randy Schwan both declined comment on the case while it proceeds.

Rudd said he wants to see the focus on the hepatitis victims.

“We believe we’ll have proof of negligence against both ManorCare and Trinity,” he said.

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