Family sues Inland Empire hotel after father dies of Legionnaires' Disease

ByRob Hayes and Vania Stuelp KABC logo
Friday, February 1, 2019
Family sues IE hotel after father dies of Legionnaires' Disease
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A family is suing an Inland Empire hotel after a father of five died of Legionnaires' Disease.

ONTARIO, Calif. (KABC) -- Walter Winfield, his children say, looked nothing like an 87-year-old man. The Air Force veteran and retired General Dynamics employee had just watched one of his 11 grandchildren get married. That was April 13 of last year. A week later, Winfield grew ill. By May 5, he was dead.

"It was shocking because it happened so fast," Winfield's daughter Tamra Winfield-Pace told us.

Both Tamra and Winfield's son, Walter, say their mother took it the hardest. The couple were just weeks away from their 60th anniversary. What shattered their life together?

"He was tested positive for Legionella," Tamra explains.

Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia. You catch it by breathing in contaminated mist. That's what Winfield's death certificate says killed him. And that's what sparked the wrongful death lawsuit. In it, Winfield's family says the bacteria came from an Ontario hotel.

"The exact strain that the coroner found was tracked to their pool exactly," the Winfield Family attorney Brian Panish said. "The odds of that happening are so, so extreme."

Panish is talking about the pool and hot tub at what is now called the Hotel D'Lins. When Winfield stayed there last year, it was the Best Western Plus Ontario.

Ironically, Winfield picked that hotel because of the pool area.

"Definitely dad was into swimming pools and hot tubs because he wanted to see his grandkids swimming," Tamra remembers.

But the lawsuit alleges danger was lurking in the water there, with the defendants being "repeatedly notified and warned of numerous California Health and Safety Code violations" and that the water quality was "critical" prior to Winfield's stay.

We did some digging into the hotel's inspections available on the San Bernardino County Health Department's website. Eyewitness News found various violations dating back three years. Some were deemed critical with improper chlorine and pH levels, but corrected at the time of the inspection.

Just two days before Winfield's death, inspectors found no detectable chlorine level in the hotel pool and hot tub, ordering them drained and closed.

"They had been cited and warned 25 times over the three and a half years before he stayed there," Panish claims. "They ran through all the stop signs and red lights and this was the consequence."

The Winfields are suing the company that owns the Hotel D'Lins Ontario. Eyewitness News reached out to the attorney representing the hotel and its owner and operator and he said he can't comment on pending litigation.

But in court papers, they deny all the allegations raised by the Winfield family.

The family says the lawsuit is not about money, but about letting hotels know that skimping on pool and hot tub upkeep can be devastating and not just financially.

"How do we fix this?" questions Walter. "They've got to be diligent in the maintenance they do to protect the public."

Panish concludes: "That's the reason these rules are in place because if you don't follow them there can be deadly consequences."