Family still seeking answers over Legionnaires’ outbreak death

Jennifer Lonnie, Widow of Legionnaire's Disease victim John. 
Picture: Neil Hanna
Jennifer Lonnie, Widow of Legionnaire's Disease victim John. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE family of a man who died in the Capital’s deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2012 are still searching for answers over his death – almost four years later.

Jennifer Lonnie, whose husband John died just hours after being admitted to hospital, said she remained none the wiser over the circumstances surrounding his illness.

Four people died following the lethal epidemic that swept through south-west Edinburgh in the summer of 2012 – with nearly 100 treated for the disease.

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Nine sites were named in an NHS report last year as potential sources of the outbreak, which experts concluded was spread through an “aerosol release” of bacteria. But despite a huge investigation employing cutting-edge science, no definite cause was ever found.

And almost four years on, the Crown Office is still deliberating over whether to launch a fatal accident inquiry, meaning vital documents remain out-of-bounds to the victims and their families.

Mrs Lonnie, who now lives in Hertfordshire, close to her childhood home in Watford, said she was angry and frustrated by the delay.

Along with other affected families, she has launched a civil claim for damages against the North British Distillery Company and MacFarlan Smith, two of the firms named in last year’s report as possible sources of the bug.

But her lawyer said the action had been suspended because the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) would not release vital information due to the uncertainty over a fatal accident inquiry. David Short, head of litigation at Balfour+Manson LLP, who is acting for Mrs Lonnie, said the HSE would refuse to provide information “where there is the possibility of a fatal accident inquiry or a prosecution because they consider it not to be in the public interest to release the information”.

Mrs Lonnie, who is now 68, said: “I’ve got no answers whatsoever. It’s taken so long to hear anything about my husband’s death.

“I want to know why. A big ‘why?’ Why have they not released the paperwork? I just want to know what happened. I just want to know the whole thing. It’s been four years. It’s a lot of stuff – I keep going through it.

“When you have been with somebody all the years I was – what would you have done? You really have got to go through it to know what other people are going through.”

John and Jennifer Lonnie married in 1970 and later moved to Stenhouse Avenue West in Gorgie, near the centre of the 2012 outbreak.

When Mr Lonnie fell ill, his wife was down south visiting family. She immediately rushed home and took him to hospital.

Later that night, on June 30, she received a phone call informing her that her husband was critically ill.

Along with some close family, she travelled to hospital to see him, but the 65-year-old had passed away by the time she arrived.

A post-mortem examination revealed the cause of death was legionella pneumonia – Legionnaires’ disease.

The great-grandmother said her husband’s death had left her so bereft she had struggled to eat for six months – a side-effect of grief that lasted until her doctor intervened.

The former cleaner added: “I’m angry because I left my husband in good health when I went down to see my grandchildren, and then I got a phone call five days later saying he was ill. I came home and he was not the same John. I sat and cried. I talked to him. I just miss him.”

Her lawyer, Mr Short, said the widow’s tragic story was not unusual, and hit out at the “glacial approach to investigating deaths and providing families with essential information that they require to come to terms with a loved one’s death”.

He said: “It is commonplace to wait many years for a decision to be made in what, in some instances, can be very straightforward matters. We are coming up to the fourth anniversary of Mr Lonnie’s death and no progress has been made at all with the civil case. Nor has Mrs Lonnie been able to get any answers as to who – in her words – killed her husband.

“We are getting nowhere and we’re four years down the line. There are three other families involved who I don’t act for, and I think there are about 30 other claimants. Everybody is stuck. Nobody can do anything at all. Looking out from this particular case, this is not unusual. In most cases now, people are having to wait years and years because of the Crown delays in reaching a decision on what to do. Family after family now are waiting years and years before they can get answers. We could be realistically looking at another two or three years before we can get access to the papers.”

Mr Short said he was told in March that the Crown Office “intended to have a report with Crown Counsel by the end of May [as to] whether or not to have a fatal accident inquiry”. He has heard nothing since.

As well as Mr Lonnie, Robert Air, Sean Ferguson and Sylvia Riddell all lost their lives in 2012, with more than 1000 patients investigated and treated.

Lawyers for the families affected have previously argued a fatal accident inquiry is “crucial”. They have repeatedly called for more information to be shared with the victims, but say requests have been met with a “wall of silence”.

A Crown Office spokesman said 2012’s outbreak was a “complex case which required detailed and lengthy investigation, involving complicated technical and medical issues and expert opinion”.

He said: “In April 2015 the Crown concluded that there was no scientific basis for any prosecution related to the deaths and that consideration would be given to a fatal accident inquiry. Crown Counsel will, in their determination, give consideration to a number of factors, including the responses to the IMT [the multi-agency Incident Management Team] report published in August 2015 and the views of the families. Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to hold a fatal accident inquiry does not have an influence on any civil proceedings.”

The HSE did not respond to a request for comment.