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'Head to toe': Mother, son sue after being covered in human wastewater from pipe mishap at UT Medical Center

The incident occurred May 4, 2020, in an ICU room where Joel Patterson was a patient.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Speedwell mother and son are suing the University of Tennessee Medical Center and two contractors after they say a "downpour of human waste" fell on them while he was in an intensive care unit room last year.

Patricia Gibson and Joel Patterson are seeking a jury trial in Knox County Circuit Court and compensatory damages of no more than $1 million and punitive damages of no more than $1 million.

In addition to UTMC, Gibson and Patterson name contractor Johnson & Galyon Inc. and subcontractor Del-Air Mechanical Contractors Inc.

"This was bad," said attorney Dail Cantrell, speaking for the family.

Cantrell said the sheer volume of wastewater that fell on the pair amounted to hundreds of gallons. Nurses who went in to help Patterson, who was on a ventilator and intubated, also got fecal material on them as they tried to shield Patterson, he said.

The incident happened May 4, 2020, according to the lawsuit.

Gibson, however, had begun smelling a foul odor in the room several days beforehand. The nurses couldn't find the source of the smell.

Cantrell said it appears a leak had slowly developed where two pipes join in the ceiling above the room. There'd previously been remodeling and renovation work in the area, the attorney said.

It appears a sealing point linking the pipes failed May 4.

Cantrell said hundreds of gallons of wastewater fell on the son, mother and nurses who came in to help. People were covered "head to toe," the attorney said.

"Since Mr. Patterson was on a respirator and intubated, he was not able to avoid this downpour of human waste," the lawsuit states.

Gibson tried to shield her son from the fallout. Nurses also tried to protect him, Cantrell said.

The plaintiffs allege negligence on UTMC's behalf. 

The lawsuit filed this spring originally named only the hospital under the name University Health System Inc. The hospital filed a third-party complaint in June blaming Johnson & Galyon and Del-Air for the actual work.

WBIR reached out to the defendants for comment. A hospital spokeswoman said it doesn't comment on litigation.

The contractors did work including "plumbing of a drain-waste-vent line above or in and around the room where the plaintiffs' alleged damages occurred," according to the hospital's complaint.

If the hospital is found to be liable in the incident because of what the contractors did, then the hospital argues it should get money from them to cover the judgment.

Patterson and Gibson's lawsuit now also names the contractors as defendants.

Cantrell said Patterson has since left the hospital. He was admitted in April 2020 for "complications of a chronic illness." The attorney declined to be more specific.

Only Patterson's room was affected by the wastewater dump, Cantrell said.