In June 2016, 18-year-old Lauren Seitz contracted brain-eating amoeba infection during her visit at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, an outdoor recreation and athletic training facility in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The young woman later died from a brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis caused by the amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. Now, her family is filing a lawsuit against the park for negligence and wrongful death a year after she passed away.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Ohio, claims that the popular rafting channels in the park were dangerous and that park operators disregarded the safety of the visitors.
Seitz died days after she visited the center on June 8, 2016 with her youth group. She was in a raft that overturned and likely contracted the amoeba during the accident. Water containing the pathogen likely got up her nose.
The amoeba enters the body when contaminated water in lakes, rivers, and other bodies of freshwater goes up the nose. Infections are rare but often fatal.
"Once the ameba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes [primary amebic meningoencephalitis], which is usually fatal," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. "In very rare instances, Naegleria infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources (such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated and contaminated tap water) enters the nose."
National Whitewater Center's Contaminated Water
After the incident, the park shuttered its water feature for about two months. A federal epidemiologist later found that the park's filtration and disinfection systems were not adequate to properly clean the waters of the facility. The water samples from the park were found to have amoeba at levels that the CDC had not earlier seen. The park eventually changed its filtration and disinfection system.
At the time of Seitz's death, the center was the only one of three similar facilities in the country that was not regulated to protect the public from waterborne disease. An employee of the park wrote to a county commissioner complaining that the water quality had become so poor that raft guides routinely suffer from skin illnesses. Dead animals and trash were also frequently found on the water's surface.
The lawsuit takes aim at the primary contentions of Whitewater officials following the teenager's death. Officials of the outdoor recreation facility repeatedly defended themselves by claiming that the amoeba is common in warm bodies of water during the summer, particularly in southern United States.
The lawyer for the teenager's father, however, cited a state review that the high levels of amoeba in the water, the risk of submersion, and exposure to high-velocity water all increase the risk of infection, and this risk is higher than the odds of infection from exposure to amoeba in the natural environment.
Family Seeks Punitive Damages
The lawsuit alleges that the facility failed to properly chlorinate the water, failed to regulate water temperature, and failed to warn visitors of the potential dangers.
The family seeks punitive damages of more than $1 million.