A federal judge in New Orleans awarded a summer intern $310,000 in his lawsuit over a near-deadly bout of Legionnaires’ disease contracted onboard a ship, according to the Bangor (MA) Daily News.

Bryan Higgins, 27, of Concord, NH, took ill in August 2013 while working aboard an offshore vessel for LaBorde Marine Management LLC of New Orleans. He contracted the disease cleaning out a refrigerator drain without being instructed in proper safety methods, according to court papers.

Higgins was hospitalized for a month, and it took a year before he was fully recovered. He graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 2015, a year later than his classmates, because of his illness.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle found the company to be negligent in keeping Higgins’ safe from the disease. The judge also concluded that there was no credible evidence that the company’s conduct crossed from negligence to wanton misconduct, so the plaintiff’s demand for punitive damages was denied.

Higgins received a judgment of $150,000 for pain and suffering, $150,000 for lost wages, and $10,000 for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a jury-waived trial.

Higgins’ attorney called the judgment “a landmark decision. Other people will be able to use this case to pursue actions concerning Legionella.

When the judge issued his ruling, Higgins was working on a ship and unavailable to comment.

Where is Legionella found?

Legionella bacteria are widespread in natural water sources, including rivers, streams, and ponds. Legionella also are found in many recirculating water systems, as well as hot- and cold-water systems.

It has never been isolated in salt water, so vessels that make all their potable water by evaporation have a lower risk of the bacteria being present.

How is Legionella contracted?

Only when water contaminated with Legionella bacteria is made into a very fine spray (aerosol) that can be inhaled does it pose a risk to health. For example, Legionella can be inhaled:

  • when taking a shower
  • when running sink faucets
  • when warm, moist air is circulated by air conditioning, heating units, and humidifiers
  • when using fire hoses (if fresh water is used)
  • when washing the hold of a ship (again, if freshwater is used).

What measures should be taken?

Assess the water systems of the vessel and identify all risk areas:

  1. Study the hot- and cold-water system plans and identify all water outlet points “dead legs,” any potential “dead ends” (blanked off pipes where the water cannot circulate) or long pipe runs.
  2. Check the water temperature of ALL hot- and cold-water points (i.e. taps, showers, hoses).
    1. Allow hot water to run for one minute and cold water for two minutes before taking a reading.
    2. The boiler output temperature must be above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
    3. The hot supply must be greater than 122 degrees.
    4. The cold supply must be less than 68 degrees.
  3. Check what actual cleaning, maintenance, and disinfection routines are in place on the vessel.
  4. Assess and identify ALL points where water could be made into an aerosol and be breathed in by the crew, passengers and visitors.
  5. Document findings so that the information can be included in the planned maintenance or ISM procedures, which then can be referred to by any Master or responsible officer. An ideal vessel at least risk is one where the temperature readings are satisfactory, there are no “dead ends,” the “dead legs” are used frequently, the vessel makes all potable water by evaporation, and cleaning and disinfection procedures are in place.

What procedures should be implemented?

The minimum recommended requirements for cleaning and maintenance are as follows:

  • The hot water boiler outlet temperature must be greater than 140 degrees.
  • Dismantle, inspect, clean and soak the shower heads and pipework in a disinfectant or chlorine solution for a few hours at least once every three months. Remove any sediment, algae, or calcified deposits.
  • Super-chlorinate the freshwater tanks twice a year, and flush the water through all outlet points “dead legs.”
  • Any crew or passenger cabin that has been out of use for two to four weeks must have the shower cleaned and soaked in a chlorine solution before the cabin can be used.
  • Have the water bacteriologically tested if hot- and cold-water temperatures are outside the recommended range.