An Irish woman has won a record, multi-million Euro settlement after developing severe disease while working at a pet store. Patricia Ingle was a healthy 19-year-old when she was working in a Limerick, Ireland pet store. Then she developed psittacosis, an infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci, which she most likely contracted from a cockatiel at the store. It doesn’t sound like the source of infection was confirmed, but the bird-associated nature of the bacterium (and presumably no other high-risk source of infection for the person) and the timing of disease with respect to contact with the cockatiel, are strongly suggestive. 

Exposure to C. psittaci is an ever-present risk when working with psittacines, especially when they come from various sources and are mixed and stressed, as often occurs in pet stores. Human infections are rare, and they are usually treatable if diagnosed and managed properly. Usually, flu-like disease develops in people, however Ms. Ingle developed severe and permanent neurological disease (malpractice in management of her infection was also alleged).

This is yet another example of the need for proper education and training. Not all infections are preventable, and not all infections indicate liability. If this store had a proper training program in place, adequately informed staff of potential risks and had sound protocols in place to reduce the risk of exposure, it would have been possible to argue that this was an unavoidable infection in someone that knew the risks. In the absence of proper training, education and protocols, however, there’s no way to successfully argue that any infection was not preventable, and the liability should shift to the employer. Hopefully this is a wake-up call for pet stores (as well as other facilities like veterinary clinics) that while you can never eliminate infectious disease exposure, you have a moral and legal requirement to take practical measures to protect staff, visitors and other people.