- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Parties involved in a federal lawsuit tied to a hepatitis C outbreak in Minot that has been the largest in recent U.S. history are turning to mediation to try to reach a resolution.

The case has lingered in court for a year and a half, and the attempt at mediation comes as one of the two health care facilities involved in the dispute has stepped up the rhetoric over who is to blame.

None of those involved in the case are detailing their reasons for trying mediation now. A session is scheduled for Tuesday, according to court documents that do not provide specifics. Mediation typically involves an independent party helping opposing sides settle a dispute outside of court.

“All parties have agreed to mediate the case … to attempt to resolve the entire case,” Minneapolis attorney J. Gordon Rudd, one of the lawyers involved, told The Associated Press. He declined to discuss in detail his reasons for agreeing to mediation after 1½ years of litigation.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause serious liver damage or even death. 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 the state Health Department. 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 pinpointed an exact cause, but suspect the outbreak might have been associated with foot care, nail care or blood services provided to ManorCare residents.

ManorCare contends the outbreak is tied to an employee with Trinity Health’s outpatient laboratory service who allegedly reused needles and did not follow infection control practices, and has sued the hospital. Trinity denies responsibility and is seeking damages from ManorCare.

The dispute among the two health care facilities is tied in with a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed by two hepatitis C victims against ManorCare in April 2014, seeking unspecified damages. Rudd, their attorney, also is representing 20 other clients who have sued both ManorCare and Trinity in state court.

Rudd told The Associated Press last month that he believes he can prove negligence against both ManorCare and Trinity. He has said in the past that his clients are elderly and he would like to see quick resolutions.

“Generally speaking, parties always attempt to resolve cases in order to avoid the risks and uncertainties inherent in litigation and trial,” Rudd said in a statement to the AP this week. “If the mediation is unsuccessful, then the case will continue in court.”

ManorCare spokeswoman Julie Beckert declined to comment. Trinity Health had no immediate comment.

The move to mediation comes as ManorCare is asking the court to compel Trinity to release evidence of drug diversion - instances in which people steal patients’ prescription medicine for their own use. Drug diversion by health care providers can contribute to infection outbreaks, according to the CDC.

ManorCare alleges in court documents filed in late October that “Trinity has tolerated and concealed extensive drug diversion at its hospital for years.”

Trinity maintains that ManorCare is mischaracterizing facts in the case.

“While ManorCare’s counsel wants this court to believe that Trinity ‘concealed critical information about the hepatitis C outbreak from the government,’ nothing could be further from the truth,” Trinity attorneys say in a letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal.

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