Small amounts of Legionella bacteria can be found in freshwater streams and lakes throughout North Carolina. As long as it stays in its natural habitat, this bacteria does not pose a major health risk. However, when the bacteria enters building freshwater systems, it can grow, spread and cause outbreaks of a severe type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s disease. This is what seems to have happened recently at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel.

The Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed on Aug. 15 that Legionella bacteria was found in water samples collected from the hotel’s cooling tower and one of its ornamental fountains. One death has been linked to the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak and 13 other people have been diagnosed with the disease. The GDPH has identified an additional 66 possible cases. Individuals who contract the disease usually recover when treatment is administered quickly, but its flu-like symptoms can persist for as long as two months.

The first lawsuit connected to the outbreak was filed by a 67-year-old man who claims that he became sick on July 15 while photographing a conference at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel. The hotel’s owners and its general manager are named defendants. The man’s lawyer says that the only possible explanation for the outbreak is the hotel’s gross negligence. Legal analysts expect a flood of similar litigation to follow and believe that a class action lawsuit is possible.

Property owners and operators often seek to settle this kind of lawsuit because the conditions that allow potentially deadly pathogens to grow and thrive can be hard to explain to a jury. During settlement negotiations, a personal injury attorney could encourage a property owner to resolve a premises liability case at the negotiating table by pointing out how a protracted civil trial could further harm their already damaged reputation.