Aquarium sued over child's illness

The parents of a child who developed a bacterial infection after petting stingrays at the Tennessee Aquarium has filed a federal lawsuit seeking $2.4 million.

Aquarium officials issued a news release late Friday acknowledging the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, but denied responsibility for the boy's condition.

"While we sympathize with this young man's situation and wish the family well, we do not believe that we are responsible," aquarium spokesman Thom Benson said in a release.

The infection, which cropped up after the child was at the aquarium in November, is known as "fish-handler's disease." Reached by telephone Friday, Benson said five water tests in November showed no trace of the bacteria and the exhibit was not closed

The complaint by Christopher and Catherine Callaghan, of Cobb County, Ga., claims that their child touched stingrays and sharks in the aquarium's exhibit and within six days developed signs of the disease.

Over the next few weeks, the child was treated at two hospitals before spending 11 days at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, undergoing multiple surgeries and "excruciating pain throughout his right hand," the complaint states.

Benson said staff took several steps after learning the child was sick, including testing the water in the stingrays' tank. He said no staff members have tested positive for the bacteria and noted other sources of possible contamination.

"(Fish-handler's bacteria) can be found in soils, mammals - including cats and dogs - and is frequently associated with infections from poultry and swine," Benson said in the release.

On Friday, he would not comment on whether the aquarium had attempted to reach a settlement with the couple before the June 20 lawsuit filing.

The complaint asks the federal court to hold the aquarium responsible for the infection because it allows an open exhibit that "allowed patrons to touch aquatic animals" and the aquarium staff "knew that these animals carried the (bacteria) and failed to warn their invitees."

Attorneys for the aquarium have until July 18 to file a response to the complaint.

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