Quincy Legionnaires’ Families Await ‘Justice’ From Pritzker: ‘What Are They Waiting For?’
Tim Miller appeared in what arguably was Democrat JB Pritzker’s single, most-devastating commercial last year from his campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Just a month before the November election, Miller got emotional in the political ad as he chided Rauner for his mishandling of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a state-run veterans’ home. The outbreak killed Miller’s Army veteran father.
But now, Miller is calling out the Democratic governor he helped get elected.
The topic: the state’s lack of movement toward resolving lawsuits from Miller and 11 other families of Legionnaires’ victims who died in repeated outbreaks at Illinois’ largest state-run veterans’ home between 2015 and 2017.
“He’s been governor for five months now,” Miller said. “Certainly, as time goes on, that is going to become more and more of a question. It kind of becomes a question for us. Was this really about the stories, and the loss and the heroes? Or was this about an election campaign?”
Pritzker made the Legionnaires’ outbreaks a key focus of his campaign and repeatedly hit Rauner for his “fatal mismanagement” at the facility. Since becoming governor, he has said the families deserve “justice” in getting their cases settled.
He also has pledged repeatedly to stay on track in building a new $230 million home to replace the 133-year-old Quincy facility and has vowed to break ground by the end of the year. Meanwhile, a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of multiple Legionnaires’ outbreaks — announced during the height of the gubernatorial campaign — remains active, according to the attorney general’s office.
But almost half way into Pritzker’s first year in office, the families’ lawsuits appear no closer to being settled than they were under Rauner. And now Miller and some of the other victims’ families are beginning to wonder whether they were no more than political props in a bareknuckle campaign.
“Was his promise to settle these lawsuits — his admittance that there were mistakes made — was that out of genuine concern for the families to get justice and closure?” Miller said of Pritzker during an interview with WBEZ.
If the state ultimately settles all 12 of the pending Quincy Legionnaires’ cases for the maximum allowable award, taxpayers will be on the hook for as much as $24 million. Because there have not been specific settlements, the governor did not include any funds to resolve the lawsuits in his proposed 2020 state budget, and there are no signs it’s part of ongoing budget talks between the governor and state lawmakers.
Pritzker’s office says he remains “deeply” committed to seeing the families’ cases resolved, but noted that Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office, as the state’s legal representative in the lawsuits, is now overseeing the litigation.
“The governor is confident that Attorney General Raoul and the families who suffered as a result of the Legionnaires’ outbreak at Quincy will reach a fair resolution in these cases,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. “The administration is continuing to work with the attorney general’s office to ensure these cases can be resolved in an appropriate manner.”
A Raoul spokeswoman declined comment on the litigation, and Raoul turned down a request from WBEZ to be interviewed.
Pritzker in 2018: State obligation to Quincy families “sacred”
Pritzker’s promised reforms and his vow to settle the Legionnaires’ negligence lawsuits followed a yearlong WBEZ investigation into the outbreaks in Quincy. The stories uncovered that state officials waited six days during the fatal 2015 outbreak before notifying families and the public about what the former public health director, Nirav Shah, described as an “epidemic.”
Pritzker frequently used the issue as a cudgel against Rauner.
“The obligation we have to these heroes and to their families is sacred and to have that obligation so thoroughly neglected is an unconscionable moral failing,” Pritzker said in February 2018. “This is incompetence. It is gross mismanagement. This is what happens when a governor refuses to take charge.”
The six-day lag in notifying the public about the 2015 outbreak was condemned by nationally prominent public health experts and families, who said it robbed them of the opportunity to remove their loved ones from the home. The delay was later criticized by the state’s top auditor. And it prompted state lawmakers to create a law mandating 24-hour notice of Legionnaires’ and other communicable disease outbreaks at state veterans’ homes.
Additionally, Shah detailed in internal state emails obtained by WBEZ that shortly before the 2015 outbreak, a facility engineer errantly released up to 1,600 gallons of stagnant water into the veterans’ home’s potable water system. Shah described that discharge as a “broth of Legionella.”
The mistake, made during maintenance on a hot-water tank, broke state rules and could have drawn sanctions against the facility from state public health authorities, but none were ever issued, Shah noted.
In March, the report released by Auditor General Frank Mautino concluded that the release was “the likely cause” of the 2015 outbreak that killed 12 people and sicked dozens of other residents and staff at the Quincy facility.
“I’d hate to think it had been a political football”
Despite the evidence and Pritzker’s acknowledgement that “there were mistakes made,” the state still has not accepted any legal liability over how the Legionnaires’ outbreaks were handled. The families’ cases are still languishing in the obscure legal venue known as the Illinois Court of Claims, which deals with litigation against the state.
Last November, Illinois lawmakers gave final approval to legislation that scrapped a decades-old $100,000 cap on awards in Court of Claims cases — a limit that was tied for the lowest in the U.S. Following WBEZ’s investigation, lawmakers raised that amount to $2 million and made it retroactive to include the Quincy families’ lawsuits, which date back to 2016.
“The question for me is, what are they waiting for? I know I’m getting calls from my clients expressing the same kind of concern,” said Quincy lawyer Ryan Schuenke, who represents three victims’ families, including Tim Miller’s family.
“It’s not something that has just happened or is six months old, a year old. It’s four years in August from the time these individuals passed away, so I think everybody feels like it’s time to start moving forward,” Schuenke said.
Chicago lawyer Steven Jambois, who is representing the family of 2017 Legionnaires’ victim Valdemar “Roy” Dehn, said he has made a request for a $2 million settlement with the attorney general’s office but has not gotten a response.
“If you look back at the governor’s website and the pronouncements of the attorney general and some of the legislative discussions, one would think if you felt it was so important six months ago, it certainly should be equally and more important today. These are people who have been damaged for quite some time and certainly should be exposed to some justice at this point and not have this delayed to two or three years,” Jambois said.
“I’d hate to think it had been a political football and they were being manipulated just for the interest of an election. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the governor’s going to do the right thing, [and] the attorney general is going to do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, Miller says if he gets a portion of a $2 million award as a result of his father’s death, he intends to devote part of it to a not-for-profit organization that provides services to the developmentally disabled.
Miller said he does not regret appearing in the Pritzker campaign commercial. But he’s frustrated that neither the governor nor attorney general seem focused on getting the Legionnaires’ families’ lawsuits settled.
“It just doesn’t seem to be a priority, and we want closure,” Miller said. “We want to put this behind us. But unfortunately, with the lawsuits being open, it prevents us from being able to fully put closure to this and to fully say we got justice and that this is a done deal.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.