A Washington postal worker who was stricken by anthrax sued Postmaster General John E. Potter and two other postal managers yesterday, alleging that they put his life in danger by failing to close his workplace swiftly after anthrax spores were discovered and by misleading employees about the dangers of infection.
Attorneys for Leroy Richmond filed the $100 million civil suit in U.S. District Court in Washington. Richmond, 58, of Stafford survived a life-threatening battle with inhalation anthrax after he was exposed to the bacterium that causes the disease in October 2001 while working in Washington's now-shuttered central postal plant on Brentwood Road NE.
Two letters containing anthrax spores passed through the facility on their way to Capitol Hill. Two Brentwood postal workers -- Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55 -- died of inhalation anthrax, and the plant was recently renamed in their honor.
"This is about finding some justice and closure in this case," Richmond said yesterday at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
The suit alleges that Potter, along with the Brentwood Road facility's plant manager and the postmaster in Washington, acted with "deliberate indifference" to Richmond's safety by failing to take necessary precautions in the aftermath of the anthrax mailings. The suit says that the officials' conduct violated Richmond's Fifth Amendment right to equal protection.
U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah A. Yackley said that the agency would not comment on a lawsuit that it had not yet received. In the past, postal leaders have maintained that they relied on the advice of federal health officials during the anthrax crisis.
Richmond's suit alleges that the postal officials kept the Brentwood Road plant open for several days after an aide to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) opened an anthrax-laced letter Oct. 15.
In the days that followed, workers were assured of their safety and Richmond reported to work as usual, the suit says. Gregory L. Lattimer, one of Richmond's attorneys, said at the news conference that the facility's plant manager told employees that closing the plant was not an option because that would cost the Postal Service $600 million a day.
Yackley, while refusing to address the suit, said: "Our first consideration has always been our employees' safety and health."
Lattimer said that even after postal officials were informed Oct. 19 that Richmond was given a preliminary diagnosis of inhalation anthrax that day, the facility was kept open. It was shut Oct. 21.
The suit alleges that the responses to the discovery of anthrax spores at the postal plant and on Capitol Hill were different. After the Daschle letter was opened, officials shut Capitol Hill offices and treated workers with antibiotics. But the suit says because the majority of workers at the postal plant were black, Richmond and other postal employees were "deemed expendable," and the plant was kept open.
The suit comes several weeks after Postal Service officials rejected Richmond's claim for damages beyond the workers' compensation payments he'd been receiving since October 2001. He was hospitalized for 27 days that fall. Since then, he has received about two-thirds of his monthly $2,360 salary under the workers' compensation program. The Postal Service said that federal employment compensation laws limit what it can pay victims of workplace injuries.
A November letter from postal officials to Richmond that was obtained by The Washington Post stated that the agency is barred by law from compensating him further. The payments Richmond has received "provide his exclusive remedy from the U.S. Postal Service," the letter said.
Richmond said yesterday that he still suffers fatigue and memory loss. Beyond the compensation payments, Lattimer said, Richmond has not received any compensation "for having his life put in danger."
Richmond said when his 7-year-old son asks him to play soccer, he has to tell him that he doesn't have the strength. "My quality of life has changed," said Richmond, a 35-year veteran of the Postal Service.