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Jury awards $12 million in fungus-related valley fever lawsuit against Caltrans

A Northern California jury awarded five construction company workers nearly $12 million in damages in a lawsuit alleging the California Department of Transportation did not warn them about the risks of being exposed to a dangerous fungus at a work site. 

The Solano County jury on Thursday found that Caltrans knew the risks of the fungus and concealed its presence. The crew was excavating and expanding a culvert in Kern County in 2008, according to the complaint.

During the trial, jurors learned Caltrans employees not only knew the Kern County project was in a high-risk area, but had a map from the county health department showing places where the fungus previously had been in the soil. 

The fungus causes a potentially deadly respiratory disease commonly known as valley fever.

Peter Alfert, lead attorney on the case, said Caltrans warned all of its employees in Kern County by email about the risk of the fungus and told them how to prevent exposure. That warning, however, was not given to independent contractors and their employees, he said.

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"They weren't advising people of the risk that they would get an incurable disease," he told The Times. "On a real, common-sense level, the case came down to the fact that it was clear that Caltrans knew about the risk. They warned their own people about the risk. It would be so easy to warn the plaintiffs about this."  

Two of the construction workers already are disabled and unable to work, Alfert said, and the two who are not fully disabled require accommodations as a result of valley fever. The fifth worker, who had less direct contact with the soil and a less severe infection, has returned to work.

Alfert said the award will help the five workers with their ongoing medical expenses, but it does not undo the damage that already has been done. 

In a statement, Caltrans said that safety is the department's "top priority" and that it is "carefully evaluating all of its options for appeal." 

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

For more local and breaking news, follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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