Governor Charlie Baker has agreed for the state to pay $56 million to the families of veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020 in one of the nation’s most notorious and deadly outbreaks of the virus.
Families of 84 veterans who died from COVID will each receive a minimum of $400,000, with an average payment of $500,000, according to lawyers who brought the federal lawsuit in July 2020. Families of another 84 veterans who contracted COVID at the home and survived will also qualify for a payment of at least $10,000, with an average payment of $20,000.
“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,” said Thomas Lesser, who represented the families along with partner Michael Aleo. “This settlement recognizes that the tragedy was preventable and never should have happened.”
The Baker administration has faced intense criticism for putting a politically connected appointee with no health care experience in charge of the veterans facility as the pandemic descended. Multiple investigations have concluded that “toxic leadership” at the facility led to fatal errors such as combining sick and healthy patients in the same unit, speeding COVID’s spread.
Baker praised the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge. Lawyers will present a detailed plan to US District Judge Mark Mastroianni next week.
“The COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a terrible tragedy,” Baker said in a statement. “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.”
Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette, whose father, Jim Mandeville, lived 16 years at the home before his death from COVID-19 in April 2020, said she hopes the settlement will help other veterans in Massachusetts and around the country.
“I’d rather have my dad obviously,” she said, but “this settlement validates what the involved family members already knew — that the Commonwealth failed our veterans, causing most of them to die alone. In doing so, the Commonwealth is responsible for the heartbreak, pain, and suffering of their loved ones.”
Lesser and Aleo originally sought $176 million on behalf of the Holyoke victims, arguing that the unchecked COVID outbreak at the soldiers’ home “rose to the level of a deprivation of the veterans’ constitutional rights to be free from harms recklessly created by the government,” Lesser said in a statement Thursday.
But Aleo called the $56 million settlement “extremely fair given the difficulty of the legal obstacles that lay ahead, as well as the difficulty of collecting any award given the limitations” of Massachusetts law.
The funds will be distributed by Donald Stern, a former US attorney, who has been appointed claims administrator. He will decide how much is paid to each family.
The lawyers, from the firm Lesser Newman Aleo & Nasser, will receive more than $11 million, if all the families participate in the settlement, though it will be less if some families don’t seek their share. The lawyers will collect approximately 25 percent of the total paid to families; the projected payouts are after factoring in lawyers’ fees.
Baker will ask the Legislature to approve a supplemental budget to fund the settlement. The state still faces a separate federal lawsuit filed on behalf of dozens of employees, alleging they faced “inhumane conditions” in the home as the virus swept through it.
Senator John Velis, who represents Holyoke and has worked closely with veterans and their families, said he is “extremely pleased” that an agreement has been reached.
“Had the lawsuit continued for a longer period of time, the grief and sorrow that the families have endured would have intensified,” he said. The veterans lost to COVID “can hopefully rest in peace knowing that some of the needs of their family members may now be more easily met and they may live more securely.”
The original plaintiff was the family of Joseph Sniadach, an 84-year-old Korean War veteran who died April 27, 2020. He had moved into one of the dementia units at the facility weeks before infections quickly began to spread, according to the lawsuit. At one point, the death toll was rising so fast that Holyoke managers brought in a refrigerator truck to serve as a temporary morgue.
The lawsuit, filed in July 2020 in US District Court in Springfield, named Bennett Walsh, the home’s former superintendent; Francisco Urena, the state’s former secretary of veterans services, and other medical leaders at the facility including the medical director, Dr. David Clinton.
It did not name Baker, but last September the lawyers added Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders as a defendant. Sudders oversaw the officials who ran the home. A Globe Spotlight report detailed how Sudders was aware that Walsh was unfit to run the soldiers’ home but did little to address the problem until it was too late.
Claims against all of the defendants will be dropped once the settlement is approved by the judge.
On a radio show Thursday, Baker said he spoke to 80 families of Holyoke veterans. “And that was my opportunity to both express my grief and to give people a chance to talk to me about their family member and about the home and the circumstances and situation,” said Baker on WBUR’s “Radio Boston.”
The 29-page lawsuit charged 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, which it said “was preventable.”
“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. “Our veterans deserved better.”
The lawsuit repeatedly cited the findings of the state-ordered investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein, who 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, by taking them into units where other veterans were already infected.
Sudders fired Walsh in late March 2020, as the virus was sweeping through the soldiers’ home. She ultimately also forced Urena to resign.
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha last month issued a blistering report on the mistakes in Holyoke, painting a portrait of a temperamental and disengaged administrator who berated employees, retaliated against staffers he felt were disloyal, and was often away during working hours without any way for his staff to contact him.
The Baker administration said it was reviewing Cunha’s report, but noted that its own investigation determined Walsh and his senior medical staff were responsible for “failures” at the facility.
Attorney General Maura Healey had brought criminal neglect charges against Walsh and Clinton, but a judge threw out the case. Healey filed an appeal, which is pending.
The Holyoke settlement, while large, is comparable to the COVID-related agreement reached in January at state-run veterans facilities in New Jersey. The state agreed to pay $53 million to the families of 119 veterans who lived in two state-run homes with deadly coronavirus outbreaks. The average payout was expected to be roughly $445,000. The settlement was believed to be the first of its kind nationwide.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.