The families of military veterans who died of COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against state officials over their relatives’ “premature and preventable deaths” under living conditions that were “unsanitary, unfit, and unacceptable.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston Monday, alleges a series of actions — and failures to act — that led to the COVID-related deaths of at least 31 veterans who lived at the soldiers’ home at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Many of the veterans who died were highly decorated and had received awards, commendations and medals for their bravery, courage and accomplishments while serving their country during wartime.
“Our clients are American heroes,” attorney Anthony Antonellis wrote in a statement to GBH News. Antonellis is a senior partner at Sloane and Walsh in Boston, which is representing the families.
The defendants named in the lawsuit include former officials: Francisco Urena, secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services; Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services; and Cheryl Lussier Poppe, superintendent of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.
The suit alleges the defendants “were recklessly and/or deliberately indifferent to the basic rights and needs of the veterans were under the care of the SHC [Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea] in and after February of 2020.”
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
The allegations in this lawsuit are similar to those that ended in a $56-million settlement the state paid to families of veterans infected with COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. It’s considered one of the earliest and deadliest U.S. outbreaks of COVID-19 with 84 deaths.
“We are hoping to get answers for them [the veterans who died at Chelsea] and closure to the involved families to this devastating experience,” said Antonellis. “We also hope this lawsuit prevents this improper treatment from ever happening again. We want to know why the soldiers home did not follow clearly established infectious disease protocols and why the home was unsanitary and unfit to live in.”
The three plaintiffs are the families of Joseph “Red” Terenzio, an Army staff sergeant, Navy veteran John Sullivan and U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Maurice Poulin. They’re seeking compensatory and punitive damages “for the deprivation of the veterans’ basic and constitutional rights.”
In the years since, the state inspector general’s office wrote that it has received several complaints about the soldiers’ home. Last month, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro put out a letter that reports of the home’s conditions in 2022 “[paint] a grim picture,” writing that veterans “had been found lying ‘soaked in urine and sitting in feces’” and that the conditions “point to a catastrophic failure of the Home’s leadership.”
“We want answers to why the veterans were deprived of basic and constitutional rights,” Antonellis said, “and most importantly we want current veterans to have excellent housing and care. They deserve it for their service to our country.”