A 22-year-old woman who claims she contracted a rare brain disease from parrots while working in a pet shop has begun a High Court action against her former employer and the HSE.

Patricia Ingle from Murroe, Co Limerick is paralysed and brain damaged after contracting the disease while she was working in the Petmania Store in Limerick in 2008.

She also claims the HSE failed to diagnose her condition in time and as a result she is now in wheelchair and on a ventilator and remains in hospital in Limerick.

Opening the case this morning, her lawyers said when she began working for Petmania, which is owned by O’Keeffes of Kilkenny, she was given no health and safety training or warnings about the dangers of working with animals.

The store did not provide gloves or masks for staff and a health and safety manual the company claims it issued to staff did not contain anything about health or safety.

Senior Counsel John Gleeson said the booklet was ‘remarkable’ in that it made no mention at all about the risks of working with animals.

It did not even mention the word animal but instead contained information about employment rights. In any case, he said, Ms Ingle has no recollection of ever receiving it.

Mr Gleeson said experts would say the single most significant risk of working in pet shops is the risk of contracting infections from creatures. Animals in the store were neither screened nor treated because they were of ‘relatively low value’, he said.

It is alleged she contracted the disease as a result of inhaling dust from the faeces of parrots suffering from chlamydia psittosis - an airborne infection which can be transferred from birds to humans.

The court also heard that the month before she became ill an internal inspection of the stores noted that the bird cages ‘were filthy’ and that it scored six out of 12 in a hygiene rating.
The court heard that on 20 August 2008, Ms Ingle suffered violent headaches and vomiting. She was sent to the Mid Western Regional Hospital but was allowed home and told to rest.

There was some slight improvement over the following 11 days but on 1 September she became ill again and was admitted to hospital.

Her hospital records would have shown she worked with animals because she had previously attended hospital after being bitten by a rat.

Mr Gleeson said she remained in the Mid Western Regional Hospital for 58 hours before being transferred to Cork.

At that stage she had suffered brain damaged, could not move her limbs or speak. She has remained in that condition since.

He said the remarkable thing about this was that her condition had deteriorated while she was in an acute hospital run by the HSE and entirely in the sight of medical practitioners.

There was a failure to recognise what was going on in those 58 hours and if there had been proper recognition of her symptoms some if not all of her current difficulties could have been prevented, he said.

He said doctors failed to recognise in time, despite numerous symptoms, that she needed a neurologist which was only available in Cork University Hospital. But by the time she reached Cork she was irreversibly brain damaged.

She now remains in hospital in Limerick, is dependent on a ventilator, has to be tube fed and is in a wheelchair. Ms Ingle is attending the High Court for the hearing which is expected to last a number of weeks.

Petmania, its parent company, O’Keeffes of Kilkenny and the HSE deny the claims.

The company is disputing the claim that she contracted the disease claimed and denies that any condition was contracted while working at the store.

The HSE is not disputing the claims that she contracted the disease but will say her condition was appropriately managed while in hospital.