A west suburban man sued the state on Thursday for negligence over its inability to contain Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy veterans’ home, deepening a legal and political morass dogging Gov. Bruce Rauner’s re-election.
The lawsuit, filed with the Illinois Court of Claims, comes from the son of former Illinois Veterans’ Home resident Valdemar L. “Roy” Dehn, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran and ex-Chicago Tribune employee who died from Legionnaires’ last October.
Dehn’s case is the 12th lawsuit to arise from a series of Legionnaires’ outbreaks that have been linked to 14 deaths at the home since 2015. Dozens more residents and staff have been sickened from the waterborne bacteria that can cause a sometimes fatal form of pneumonia.
Dehn, who moved into the home in April 2016, had not been informed by facility staff about the earlier fatal Legionnaires’ outbreak in August 2015 when he was admitted, said his son, Matthew Dehn.
He said his father experienced kidney difficulties before succumbing to Legionnaires’ but noted he remained mentally sharp until his death.
“For a year and a half, he loved that place. And it killed him,” Dehn told WBEZ in an interview. “So, you know, I’m still very, very mad about that.”
According to the complaint, Roy Dehn began displaying symptoms of Legionnaires’ on Oct. 4, 2017 and was hospitalized four days later after being diagnosed with pneumonia. His death came Oct. 12, caused by sepsis bronchopneumonia due to Legionnaires’.
In a December interview with WBEZ, Erica Jeffries, who served as the state director of veterans’ affairs at the time, insisted Legionnaires’ played no role in Dehn’s death. The former Adams County coroner told WBEZ in December Dehn’s cause of death was bronchopneumonia as a consequence of legionella and influenza.
“I think there were a lot of factors that came into play in that particular resident’s passing. I think it is alarming any time someone is diagnosed with Legionnaires’. But I don’t think that it is alarming this resident succumbed to the challenges that he was facing health-wise,” she said.
“He was in a very vulnerable state to begin with. It was a terrible tragedy to have him pass away. However, I am fully confident, again, in the care that he was receiving, and we all feel like it was a terrible loss,” said Jeffries, who resigned from her post in May after criticism over her management of the public-health crisis.
Dehn was one of six residents and staff at the home to contract the illness in 2017 – a point when the state already had spent millions of dollars on water-system upgrades and after Rauner himself had insisted his administration was “really on top of the situation.”
The Dehn lawsuit, which names the state, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the home itself as defendants, contends his death stemmed from the state’s “negligent maintenance of its water systems and infrastructures which caused the widespread outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease” at the facility, which has been in continuous use since 1886.
Under existing state law, the maximum amount of damages Dehn’s estate could receive is $100,000, an award that is the lowest in the country.
But after a WBEZ investigation into the continuing outbreaks, the Illinois House and Senate last spring voted to lift that cap to $2 million and make it retroactive to cover all of the pending lawsuits against the state filed by families who lost loved ones to Legionnaires’ at the home.
Rauner has not said whether he’ll sign the measure into law.
Rauner’s office did not immediately respond to WBEZ when asked for comment Thursday on the Dehn lawsuit. In earlier Legionnaires’ lawsuits, the state has not acknowledged any negligence in the Quincy veterans’ home outbreaks.
Rauner’s Democratic rival, J.B. Pritzker, repeatedly has hit Rauner for his “fatal mismanagement” of the facility. On Monday, Pritzker said he believes that the families with loved ones who died from Legionnaires’ at the home are entitled to damages from the state.
Rauner has gone back and forth on whether the Quincy home is safe for residents. In January, he stayed at the home for a week in an attempt to dispel concerns of its safety. But the governor did a political 180 after mounting criticism following WBEZ’s reporting and pushed for a $245 million replacement of the home. On Tuesday, Rauner signed legislation that relaxes state contracting rules to speed up reconstruction of the Quincy facility.
Dehn, who lived in suburban Lisle before moving to the veterans home, was a U.S. Army veteran who served between 1948 and 1952 and was involved in ground combat during the Korean War.
Dehn said his father occasionally recounted stories from his war experience, including how on one occasion members of his regiment had to dig foxholes to keep warm as they slept. When he awoke, Dehn found the body of a good friend, who had been stabbed to death.
Much of his time after the war involved working in the sales department at the Chicago Tribune, where he was employed for 26 years. Dehn got to retire at an early age but eventually grew bored and lonely. He thought moving to the Quincy home made sense, in part, as a way to connect socially, his son said.
At the home, Dehn loved playing bingo and blackjack and enjoyed watching football and baseball, his family said.
Matthew Dehn said he’s not suing the state for the money but rather wants an apology. He’s angry at the Rauner administration’s failure to completely and immediately eradicate the Legionnaires’ threat after the 2015 outbreak that killed a dozen residents.
“They tried to sweep under the carpet an existing problem that they knew would not go away,” Dehn said. “They tried it anyway, and it failed. And it cost some people their lives. My father was one of them.”