Updated at 6:14 p.m.
Massachusetts has agreed to pay $56 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by the families of veterans who died or became sick after contracting COVID-19 at a state-run veterans' care center during one of the deadliest outbreaks at a long-term care facility in the U.S., officials said Thursday.
The families of 84 veterans who died during the outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home will receive a minimum of $400,000 each, while 84 veterans who contracted the disease and survived will receive a minimum of $10,000 under terms of the settlement that still requires a federal judge's approval.
Attorney Michael Aleo, a partner at Lesser Newman Aleo and Nasser law firm of Northampton, brought the class action lawsuit to U.S. District Court on July 17, 2020, on behalf of 160 veterans that contracted COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and June 23, 2020. He said the underlying legal issues were complicated, and the situation impacted many veterans and their families.
“We are very pleased by the settlement that we announced today, but it's bittersweet,” Aloe told GBH News. "The families are relieved that they won't be dragged through the anguish of years of litigation and that they won't be exposed to the risks of litigation.”
Mary Klicka of East Longmeadow is one of the affected family members. Her dad, 94-year-old Army veteran Henry Zanetti, contracted the coronavirus at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home in March 2020. During the outbreak, he was moved from the fourth floor at the Soldiers' home to a wing at the Holyoke Medical Center, where he tested positive. He survived the experience, but died Feb. 11 of this year.
“The most important thing is that it can't make up for our loss or for the suffering these guys went through. A lot of them were elderly. Change is very difficult for them. A lot were confused," she said. "And it just caused the families and the veterans, of course, enormous pain.”
She added that no amount of money will erase what the families had to endure. Klicka and others involved in the lawsuit said they want to see improvements to how veterans are cared for in the state.
“The suit contends that what happened at the Soldiers’ Home was so severe that it rose to the level of a deprivation of the veterans’ constitutional rights to be free from harms recklessly created by the government,” Tom Lesser, one of the families' attorneys, said in a statement.
“No amount of money can bring back the veterans who died or erase the pain and suffering that this tragedy needlessly caused those veterans and their families, but justice required that those wrongs not go unaddressed," he said. “This settlement recognizes that the tragedy was preventable and never should have happened.”
The number of COVID-19 deaths had previously been reported at about 76, but the higher number reflects further investigation by the state and includes veterans who contracted the disease but did not have it listed as a cause of death on their death certificate, Aleo said.
Former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern will serve as the settlement claims administrator and determine how much each family will receive.
The terms of the settlement will cover veterans who lived at the facility at any time between March 1, 2020 and June 23, 2020 and who became ill or died from COVID-19 during that period. The settlement amount also covers attorneys’ fees.
Gov. Baker plans to file legislation seeking $56 million for the claims fund in the coming weeks.
“The COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a terrible tragedy. While we know nothing can bring back those who were lost, we hope that this settlement brings a sense of closure to the loved ones of the veterans,” Baker said in a statement.
The coronavirus tore through the home in the spring of 2020 infecting both residents and staff.
An investigation by a former federal prosecutor hired by Baker found that management made several “utterly baffling” decisions that allowed the virus to spread almost unchecked, such as combining two locked dementia units, both of which already housed some residents with the virus. As many as 40 residents were placed in a space designed for 25.
The suit was originally filed in July 2020 by the family of Joseph Sniadach, an 84-year-old Korean War veteran who died at the home on April 27, 2020. Other veterans and their families were later added.
The defendants were four former leaders at the home and the state Secretary of Health and Human Services, the state agency that oversees the facility. Claims against five will be dropped when the settlement is approved.
The outbreak led to criminal neglect charges against the home's former superintendent and medical director, but the charges were dismissed by a judge last year. The state attorney general has appealed.
The state Inspector General last month released a report saying the superintendent at the time of the outbreak should not have been hired in the first place because he lacked the temperament and skills to run such a facility.
The state has announced plans to build a new $400 million home to replace the current 240-bed facility that was built in the early 1950s.
This story was updated to include original reporting from GBH News reporter Marilyn Schairer.