Teacher gets $1.2 Million from district
Pigeon droppings blamed for illness

South Florida Sun - Sentinel - Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Author: KELLIE PATRICK Education Writer

A former teacher who contracted a disease often linked to pigeon droppings will get a $1.2 million settlement from the Palm Beach County School District.

The teacher, 51, got sick and left his school in fall 1997, then told district officials in 1998 he had a cryptococcus infection, said Dianne Howard, the district's director of employee benefits and risk management.

Dr. John Perfect, a cryptococcus expert and medical professor at Duke University, said most people have been exposed to the fungus. Those with healthy immune systems can fight it off, he said.

In rare cases, it could lead to meningitis, which can be fatal.

Despite repeated requests, district officials refused to reveal which school was involved with the case.

"We have not had any other claims regarding indoor air quality at that school," Howard said.

The district disputes whether the teacher was even exposed at school to the fungus that causes cryptococcus, Howard said. Officials agreed to the $1.2 million out-of-court settlement on the advice of the district's insurance carrier. The settlement will cover compensation to the teacher, attorneys' fees and other costs.

The insurance company, which will reimburse the district $700,000, advised that a court loss could prove much costlier, possibly exceeding $3.7 million. The district will recoup between $100,000 and $205,000 from a state fund, Howard said.

The cryptococcus fungus is found in soil worldwide, usually along with bird droppings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illness is rare, with .2 to .9 cases per 100,000 people.

Perfect thinks most people who become ill with cryptococcus have harbored the fungus within their bodies for some time. They have no symptoms until their immune system is weakened, then the disease takes hold.

Because exposure is so common and the fungus may exist in someone's body without incident until they develop an immunity problem, Perfect said it is difficult to establish when someone has been exposed.

The best way to link the illness to its source, he said, is by comparing the DNA of the fungus found in the sick person to that found at a site.

School officials knew the teacher had a suppressed immunity condition, Howard said. That is why a state fund will reimburse part of the settlement.

While the illness is very rare, Perfect said, sometimes people without any known immunity problems get sick with cryptococcus. People contract the fungus by inhaling it, he added. It cannot be spread from one person to another. Symptoms include headache and chronic fever.

Kellie Patrick can be reached at kpatrick@sun-sentinel.com or 561- 243-6629.