No inquiry into deadly Edinburgh Legionnaires outbreak

Helen Booth
Helen Booth

SURVIVORS of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed four people in Edinburgh have hit out after the Crown Office confirmed there would be no fatal accident inquiry.

The decision not to hold a long-awaited inquiry was reached last year, but no public announcement was made and victims and relatives have only just found out.

There were 56 confirmed cases in the south-west of Edinburgh in the summer of 2012, in what was Scotland’s worst Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in more than a decade.

Criminal proceedings are now being considered against “a number of companies” for health and safety breaches unrelated to the deaths.

Helen Booth, 64, was one of those who fell severely ill with Legionnaires’ in June 2012, when she worked as a council receptionist in Gorgie.

She said she was “devastated” at the Crown Office’s decision not to hold an inquiry.

She added: “It’s a disgrace. It’s pathetic, really pathetic. But I will not leave it. This is not going to go away.”

Mrs Booth, who was left with scarred lungs as a result of pneumonia caused by her Legionnaires’, said the tragic events five years ago had been “swept under the carpet”.

“You’re just not kept in the loop with anything,” she added.

The Crown Office has now informed the families of those who died and the representatives of a number of survivors about last year’s decision.

Lawyers representing victims said they had been left “surprised and disappointed” at the move.

They have spent the last few years trying to launch civil actions against two Edinburgh firms.

But the cases were stalled while the Crown Office deliberated over whether to launch an inquiry, which would have investigated the circumstances of the deaths.

And now vital documents will remain out of bounds once again while criminal proceedings are ongoing - further frustrating families’ attempts to get answers.

Personal injury lawyers at Irwin Mitchell previously said a fatal accident inquiry was “crucial” to provide families with answers.

David Bell, head of personal injury at the firm, said: “We are very disappointed.

“I think the view seems to be that the report produced by NHS Lothian [in August 2015] was sufficient.

“That’s not a view we share, but that appears to be the Crown’s decision.”

He said the law firm remained “deeply frustrated” by the delays to civil actions.

In a letter to clients earlier this year, Irwin Mitchell advised civil cases may not be able to progress until 2018.

The firm said it had been told a fatal accident inquiry would not take place due to “difficulties in establishing the source or sources of the outbreak”.

Jennifer Lonnie, whose husband John died hours after being admitted to hospital in 2012, said she still had “no answers whatsoever”.

The 69-year-old added: “We wanted a fatal accident inquiry. We wanted the truth to come out. How much longer do we have to wait? It’s all wrong.”

Her lawyer David Short, head of litigation at Balfour Manson, said the decision not to hold an inquiry could “cut both ways” - freeing up documents and allowing civil cases to proceed.

But he insisted this path had now been blocked by slow-moving criminal proceedings.

He said: “Not to have an inquiry when you’ve got four deaths - you’ve got to ask, what is the Crown doing?

“I’m deeply disappointed that nothing is happening. We can’t even progress the civil cases because of the inactivity of the Crown.

“It’s a disgrace. We are five years on and there’s still no sign of any resolution for the families to move on with civil action.”

A report by NHS Lothian in 2015 named nine sites as potential sources of the outbreak, which spread through an “aerosol release” of bacteria.

But no definite cause was ever found and no one was ever prosecuted.

This summer will mark five years since John Lonnie, Robert Air, Sean Ferguson and Sylvia Riddell all lost their lives.

A Crown Office spokesman said its decision not to hold an inquiry came after “careful consideration”.

He said: “Crown Counsel are satisfied the [NHS Lothian] report has put all the available information in the public domain, providing a detailed description of the investigation and the steps taken in attempting to identify the source of the infection and that on that basis there is no requirement to hold a fatal accident inquiry.

“This brings the Crown’s investigation of the four deaths to a close.”