Did nerve gas sicken Orlando postal worker?

Postal worker says he was sickened by nerve gas on the job, but his lawsuit could end Thursday

A former U.S. Postal Service supervisor who says he was exposed to toxic chemicals from a package at an Orlando facility in 2011 could lose his fight for answers at a hearing Thursday, which his lawyer says is likely to end in defeat.

Jeffrey A. Lill says his life was upended when a colleague alerted him to a foul-smelling package with markings indicating it may have come from Yemen.

Soon after he says he handled the package, Lill became sick — suffering devastating, debilitating maladies.

His family recently received a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seemingly confirming the validity of his claims, after years of the USPS refusing to even acknowledge that the incident happened.

But a legal technicality seems likely to end the case, without any concrete answers to his lingering questions.

"It has been an eye-opening experience to see the delays, the denials, the deceit, the stone-walling and the lack of accountability for a valued, honored employee," says Lill's mother and caretaker, Janet Vieau.

'Rarely a sick day'

Lill was an active person and an outdoorsman, according to his mother: He hiked, he skied, he hunted and played in a band, he was a single father and, some back problems aside, in good health, Vieau says.

"He rarely had a sick day," she says.

That changed Feb. 4, 2011.

According to Lill, a coworker at the USPS processing annex on East Landstreet Road alerted him to the package, which was emitting a harsh vapor. He says he carried it to a hazmat area, but not before breathing its contents.

Quickly, he suffered a headache and a burning sensation, the family says. By June, he was too ill to work.

Vieau says the life her son was living ended that day. Ever since, he's been barely able to go outdoors. He suffers migraine-like headaches, struggles to communicate or focus, and is debilitated by gastrointestinal distress, she says.

"He can't express himself well," she says. "He also has seizures and episodes of intense shaking when he's stimulated by anything."

She said efforts to treat his condition were hampered by the USPS, which refused to acknowledge the incident, instead attributing his sickness to a disinfectant spill two days earlier. The package disappeared, his family alleges.

Based on Lill's symptoms and his reaction to treatments, his doctors now believe it held a nerve gas, Vieau said.

Benefit fight led to court

The dispute over how Lill was sickened hindered his access to benefits. According to his legal filings, the USPS maintained the incident never took place, denying a compensation claim even as he went on disability retirement in April 2012.

In January 2013, his attorney filed a formal claim for damage, injury or death, signifying that litigation was ahead.

The next month, his compensation claim was accepted. And after Lill filed a $20 million federal suit in July 2014, officials formally acknowledged that he'd suffered an array of on-the-job illnesses resulting from toxic exposure.

The attorney, Dennis A. Clary of Lewiston, N.Y., does not believe the timing is a coincidence.

Lill sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows claims by those injured by the actions of federal employees. But since he is now receiving disability, the government argues he falls under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act.

That law prohibits a compensation claim from being litigated in court. Clary says he believes that Lill's compensation was granted to avoid a court case — in which he could have questioned USPS officials about the incident.

"There was no federal workers compensation claim — until after they knew the complaint was coming to court," he says.

William Powers, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney assigned to the case, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday. He referred a reporter to the DOJ's press office, which would not comment on pending litigation.

'A shot in the dark'

Lill's last day in court is likely to come Thursday afternoon.

That's when U.S. District Judge Charles J. Siragusa in Rochester, N.Y., is expected to hear a motion by the government to dismiss Lill's lawsuit. Clary will argue against that request, but acknowledges that prior judicial decisions are not on his side.

Vieau puts the chance of defeat at near-certainty: "99.99 percent... This hearing is a shot in the dark."

The situation is more frustrating in light of a letter the family received from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in August, summing up that agency's investigation. OSHA first agreed to look into Lill's case in 2012.

"On February 4, 2011... an employee... reported a strong odor to Mr. Lill... [who] evacuated the area and removed a package from Yemen containing 2 or 3 canisters of liquid with wires," the letter says, echoing Lill's account.

"Regrettably," it continues, "the time that lapsed between the exposure and the investigation placed limitations on the scope and amount of pertinent evidence that could be gained by the investigation."

OSHA did not respond to a request for further documentation of its investigation this week. Clary, who said he did not know how the agency arrived at its conclusions, filed the letter with the court for Siragusa to read.

Still, the prospects for success are grim. Vieau, a former real estate broker whose full-time job is now to care for her son, says she "can't keep fighting it any more."

"Thursday, to me, is the end of the line," she said.

jeweiner@tribune.com or 407-420-5171

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