fb-pixel

Family of late resident files $176 million suit against former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leaders

An aerial view of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. The health care facility for veterans was the site of one of the nation's worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.
An aerial view of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. The health care facility for veterans was the site of one of the nation's worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The family of a late Korean War veteran on Friday sued the former head of the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the state’s former veterans secretary, and three others, charging that scores of residents unnecessarily died at the facility because the officials showed a “deliberate indifference” to their care.

The federal lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Springfield, appears to be the first legal action taken by family of those who died at the home, where the coronavirus outbreak killed at least 76 elderly residents and sickened dozens more, including staff members and more than 80 other veterans.

Drawing heavily from a state-ordered investigation of the home, the complaint seeks $176 million and certification as a class-action civil rights lawsuit. One of the family’s attorneys said they expect to add more plaintiffs, and justified the financial demand as an appropriate amount that “takes care” of both the veterans who were sickened and the families of the 76 who died since the beginning of March.

“They’re certainly entitled to $1 million each,” attorney Thomas Lesser said during a news conference outside the courthouse Friday.

Advertisement



The lawsuit names Bennett Walsh, the home’s former superintendent; Francisco Urena, the state’s former secretary of veterans’ services, who resigned in June; and three other former medical leaders at the facility.

It does not name Governor Charlie Baker or current members of his administration who oversaw the home, but Lesser said that attorneys are considering adding other defendants.

“We named the five people we felt were primarily responsible,” he said of the initial filing.

The lawsuit was filed by the estate of Joseph Sniadach, an 84-year-old veteran who died April 27. He had moved into one of the dementia units at the facility weeks before infections quickly began to proliferate, according to the lawsuit.

The 29-page complaint charges that the state “made a promise to its citizen-soldiers” to care for them after they served their country, but failed to stem the spread of COVID-19 through the home that it said “was preventable.”

Advertisement



“The Commonwealth did not keep its promise to protect and keep them safe from harm when they were unable to care for themselves,” the complaint states. “Instead of providing the veterans the appropriate care to which they were entitled, the five defendants in this lawsuit showed deliberate indifference to the veteran’s basic needs. . . . Our veterans deserved better.”

The lawsuit repeatedly cites the findings of a state-commissioned report released last month, which found that leaders at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes in responding to the outbreak, including failing to plan or execute basic measures to stem the spread of the virus.

That included the decision to merge two locked dementia units in late March, creating what the report called “deplorable” conditions for 40 veterans crowded into a space designed to hold 25. A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move told investigators she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death,” the report said.

William M. Bennett, the attorney and uncle of Walsh, declined to comment Friday, saying he needed to review the complaint. Bennett said last month that the report contained “many baseless accusations,” and that Walsh was “reviewing legal options.”

Urena did not respond to a message seeking his comment Friday.

Advertisement



The lawsuit also names Dr. David Clinton, the home’s former medical director; Vanessa Lauziere, its former nursing director; and Celeste Surreira, the former assistant director of nursing. Efforts to reach them at numbers connected to their names were not successful. All three were either fired or resigned from the home.

Baker, whose administration appointed both Walsh and Urena and oversees the home, did not address the lawsuit Friday, and an administration spokesman said officials would not comment on pending litigation.

But Baker said he has personally spoken with relatives of those who have died “over the course of many hours.”

“I am more than aware of the pain and the sadness and the loss that they feel,” the governor said at an unrelated news conference.

Michael Aleo, who is also representing Sniadach’s family, said in a statement that leaders at the home received guidance in February and March from state and federal officials about how to prevent and limit the spread of COVID-19, including the need to isolate residents.

“The Soldiers’ Home completely failed to heed that guidance,” Aleo said. “The results were catastrophic.”

Sniadach, formerly of Hadley, was born in Poland, and moved as a young man to the United States, where he worked for Westinghouse Electric, according to his obituary. He served in the Army during the Korean War, and was an “energetic soul who easily connected with people and made friends wherever he went,” according to the lawsuit.

He had moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts to live with family in Hadley, according to the complaint. Sniadach was in good physical health but suffered from dementia, and he and his family ultimately decided “that he would be better served by living in an assisted-living facility.”

Advertisement



He moved to the Soldiers’ Home in January.

The facility’s leaders “violated the rights of Joseph Sniadach, and other similarly situated veterans who resided at the Soldiers’ Home,” the complaint charges, “by failing to protect them from harm, provide them with a safe environment, and/or provide them with minimally adequate medical and nursing care.”

The state’s 174-page investigative report, conducted by former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein, placed most of the blame for the mishandling of the outbreak on the home’s leadership team. It concluded that Walsh was unqualified to lead the home and that the Baker administration, which appointed Walsh and his overseers, knew of his shortcomings well before the outbreak, one of the worst in the country.

Investigators said no one at the Soldiers’ Home, other than Lauziere, would admit to being involved in the decision to consolidate the two dementia units, where workers described veterans being crowded together on cots in hot rooms.

One employee told investigators she saw Surreira point to a room and say, “All this room will be dead by tomorrow,” according to the report.

Investigators also found that Walsh was a divisive leader who saw massive staff turnover during his tenure and had to attend anger management classes. During Walsh’s tenure, which began in June 2016, 274 employees left the Soldiers’ Home, the Globe previously reported.

Advertisement



The state report criticizes Urena for failing to take proper steps to address substantial and longstanding concerns about Walsh.

Attorney General Maura Healey, the Justice Department, and the state inspector general all have ongoing investigations into the home. State legislative leaders have also created a special committee to conduct its own probe.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.