Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker called on Friday for “expeditious” legal settlements with the families of Legionnaires’ disease victims who died at a state-run veterans’ home. Pritzker said he has personally relayed that request to the state’s attorney general.
The first-term Democratic governor used his bully pulpit during a visit to the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy to advocate for the dozen families suing the state over the deaths of their loved ones. In all, 14 people have died in a series of Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the largest state veterans’ home.
“I want those cases to keep moving. I want to make sure that there are settlements with the families,” Pritzker said on Friday, emphasizing that Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul, as the state’s top lawyer, is in the driver’s seat when it comes to settlements.
The comments from Pritzker, who campaigned heavily against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for his missteps at the Quincy home, follow a WBEZ report last week over the slow pace at which Legionnaires’ litigation against the state was moving on his watch. The first families’ lawsuits were filed in 2016.
Some of the victims’ families and their lawyers questioned why Pritzker did not seem to have made settling their lawsuits a priority given how he used the issue as a campaign cudgel against Rauner.
Pritzker’s administration has said it doesn’t have the constitutional authority to order the attorney general to settle the cases, a point the governor reiterated Friday. During his Quincy appearance, Pritzker also encouraged Raoul to move quickly.
“Each case is going to be a little different. And so, the settlements that need to be reached are going to be somewhat complex, one to another,” Pritzker said. “But I have encouraged the attorney general, and believe strongly that these families deserve to get settled with, that they shouldn’t have to wait for the court system.”
A spokeswoman for Raoul said Friday the attorney general is committed to reaching a “just and appropriate resolution” of the lawsuits.
“Attorney General Raoul shares the governor’s desire to resolve these cases without delay, and, as is our usual process, we are evaluating and reviewing the facts of each case and will consult with the Department of Veterans Affairs as needed to reach a fair and appropriate resolution,” Raoul spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.
Tim Miller, the son of a 2015 Legionnaires’ victim, had expressed earlier frustration at the governor for whom he filmed a devastating 2018 campaign commercial against Rauner.
But on Friday, after coming face to face with the governor during a picnic at the veterans’ home, Miller’s tone softened significantly.
“I was very critical of Rauner for ignoring us so, in fairness, I must give kudos where they are deserved,” Miller wrote in a tweet after Pritzker’s appearance at the veterans’ home Friday. “Thank you, @GovPritzker for caring and showing your support of us by taking the time to make us a part of a wonderful day. It means a lot.”
Miller’s family is among a dozen suing the state over its failure to notify the victims, their relatives, facility staff or the public in a timely manner during outbreaks between 2015 and 2017, and for its inability to keep the illnesses from recurring. A yearlong WBEZ investigation brought the families’ stories to light for the first time.
That prompted the state legislature to boost potential awards to the families to $2 million. Previously, awards in the obscure state legal venue known as the Illinois Court of Claims had been capped for decades at $100,000, the lowest limit in the country.
As a result of last fall’s legislative action, taxpayers could face a potential bill of as much as $24 million to settle all of the Legionnaires’ litigation that remains pending.
While in Quincy on Friday, Pritzker also highlighted the $230 million he wants to spend to rebuild the Quincy veterans’ home. It’s one of several projects Pritzker included in his draft plan of an infrastructure bill that could rely on tax and fee increases on gasoline, vehicle registration, video streaming services, alcohol purchases and more. That proposal is still being negotiated with lawmakers, who face a May 31 adjournment date.
“When I put forward a capital bill, I put forward the idea that we have to invest the $230 million into the new facility that’s going up here. That’s a priority for me. I’ve made that clear to the other leaders, to the whole legislature. Everybody’s seen that in writing — very important to me,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker also said he’s considering public-private partnerships to pay for the infrastructure proposal, but did not elaborate.