$176 million lawsuit filed against Holyoke Soldiers’ Home officials
Veteran’s family sues former vets secretary Urena, superintent Walsh
THE FAMILY OF a veteran who died of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is filing a class action lawsuit against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh, former Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena, and other state officials, arguing that they are responsible for the deaths of 76 veterans at the home.
The lawsuit filed in US District Court by the estate of Joseph Sniadach seeks to represent all veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the home – the 76 who died and another 84 who had the disease and survived.
The lawsuit asks for $176 million in damages, which includes $1 million for each veteran who died, compensation for those who fell ill, and punitive damages.
Sniadach was a Korean War veteran who enjoyed sports, cigars, casinos, food, and socializing, who moved to the home because of dementia and died April 27 at age 84.
Lesser said Massachusetts promised its citizens that if they serve in the armed services, the state will take care of them when they return. “They served in the armed services, they defended our country, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts failed to keep their promise, the promise to keep them safe, to keep them healthy when they came back and they were unable to care for themselves and ended up at the Soldiers’ Home,” Lesser said.
In addition to Urena and Walsh, the lawsuit names as defendants three former employees of the Soldiers’ Home, all of whom have since left their jobs: medical director David Clinton; chief nursing officer Vanessa Lauziere; and assistant director of nursing Celeste Surreira.
The management failures at the Soldiers’ Home that contributed to the COVID-19 outbreak were detailed in a scathing report issued June 23 by independent investigator Mark Pearlstein, who was hired by Gov. Charlie Baker to look into the problems at the facility. Urena resigned, and the Baker administration is moving to fire Walsh, although Walsh is challenging the process in court.
The lawsuit charges that the state officials managing the home “showed deliberate indifference” to veterans’ basic needs and to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in 76 deaths and 84 infections. “Our veterans deserved better,” the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. They argue that the officials’ actions violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by showing deliberate disregard for residents’ health and safety and failing to provide them with adequate care.
The lawsuit relies heavily on Pearlstein’s report to make a case for civil damages, writing that the report “describes a litany of ‘utterly baffling’ misrepresentations, misjudgments, mistakes and blatant errors, which by any standard amounted to a callous disregard for the health and safety of the veterans residing in the Soldiers’ Home.”
The lawsuit says officials at the home delayed testing the first ill veteran, then failed to isolate him, allowing the virus to spread. Officials made a major miscalculation in combining two dementia units, overcrowding the combined unit, when several veterans in each had already been diagnosed with COVID-19, says the suit. It says officials then had 13 body bags delivered to the home, indicating that they recognized the dangers of the virus, and failed to provide staff with adequate personal protective equipment.
“The actions, inactions, judgments, and decisions of Defendants Walsh, Clinton, Lauziere, and Surreira directly created unsafe conditions of confinement for the veterans at the Soldiers’ Home, deprived them of basic care, denied them minimally adequate treatment, and exposed them to harm,” the lawsuit charges.
The filing of the suit is the first step in what is likely to be lengthy litigation and settlement negotiations. Lesser said the attorneys have been talking with representatives of other veterans, and more named plaintiffs could be added to suit. Lesser and Aleo are also taking the procedural steps necessary to file additional charges against the state under state law.
While public employees are typically shielded from individual liability when they are doing their jobs, they can be held personally liable for a civil rights claim, which this lawsuit is. However, the state of Massachusetts can indemnify them and then take responsibility for defending the suit and paying out any claim.
William Bennett, an attorney representing Walsh, said he is still reviewing the suit.Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said in a statement, “The events that took place at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home are tragic and Attorney Mark Pearlstein was hired to conduct a thorough, independent investigation of what occurred. The Baker-Polito Administration has announced a series of reforms to strengthen the oversight and operations of the Home and does not comment on pending litigation.”