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Wrongful death suit filed in Hantavirus case

The deer mouse, seen here in this photo provided by the National Park Service, helps spread Hantavirus to humans.(National Park Service)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The family of a 20-year-old woman has filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging she contracted a deadly case of Hantavirus while working at a Torrance County retreat center.

Shawnee Romero

Shawnee Romero

Shawnee Romero was an employee at the Manzano Mountain Retreat and Apple Ranch who was tasked with cleaning “massive amounts of rodent feces and urine matter” that had accumulated in various facilities on the property while it was closed for the winter, the lawsuit alleges.

“Because of her sense of hard work, duty and responsibility, Shawnee followed her employer’s instructions to clean the camp’s cabins – even when other employees had quit because they would not clean the infested cabins,” attorney Bruce Thompson, who is representing the Romero family, told the Journal in an email.

Manzano Mountain Retreat did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

The lawsuit alleges Romero was not provided with protective equipment that might have minimized her exposure to the virus. And the company failed to take steps to disinfect contaminated areas or to limit airborne dust before she was exposed, according to the suit.

“Defendants knew the hazards of cleaning rodent feces and urine matter, and in particular defendants knew that requiring Shawnee Romero to clean rodent feces and urine matter without proper respiratory protection was likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” the suit alleges. It was filed last week in state District Court in Santa Fe.

Romero died of Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome on June 9, 2016.

“A $20 respirator would have saved Shawnee’s life,” Thompson said.

When she died, Romero was in her first year of college at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus where she was an A student studying to become a nurse.

“Her death caused unimaginable grief for her family,” Thompson wrote, “but in addition to that, Shawnee’s community lost a kind, intelligent person dedicated to helping others.”

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began counting in 1993, New Mexico has seen 109 Hantavirus cases – more than any other state. Romero’s death was the fourth for the state in 2016, and the sixth case.

Her family is seeking compensation for medical care, funeral and burial expenses, pain and suffering, and lost earnings, among other things.

Along with the ranch, defendants in the lawsuit include Garrett Capital, its parent company, principal owner, and general manager.

“The employer will probably refer to Shawnee’s death as a ‘tragic and unexpected accident,’ but it was no accident,” Thomson said. “Employers across New Mexico take unnecessary risks with their employees’ health and safety because they can get away with it. Employers are almost completely immune from suit under New Mexico law.”

According to the state Health Department, Hantavirus symptoms develop within one to six weeks after rodent exposure.

Early symptoms include fever and muscle aches, possibly with chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and cough, which progresses to respiratory distress.

While there is no specific treatment for HPS, chances for recovery are better if medical attention is sought early, health officials say.

Prevention steps include airing out closed-up buildings before entering, trapping mice until they are all gone and cleaning up nests and droppings using a disinfectant.