Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday blocked efforts to increase potential negligence awards that could go to families of a dozen Quincy veterans’ home residents who died of Legionnaires’ disease.
The move by the first-term Republican seeking re-election immediately drew sharp condemnation from veterans’ families and from Democratic rivals.
Since 2015, the deaths of 14 residents at the Illinois Veterans Home have been linked to Legionnaires’ disease, while more than 60 other residents and staff have been sickened by the waterborne respiratory illness.
Twelve families that lost parents to the disease between 2015 and 2017 have sued the state in an obscure legal venue known as the Court of Claims, where lawsuits against the state are litigated.
Rauner’s administration has chosen not to settle those cases and has refused to admit any of its actions at the state’s largest veterans’ home contributed to deaths at the facility.
Under existing law, should those families win in court, they could collect no more than $100,000 from state government. That threshold ranks as the lowest lawsuit cap in the country and has been in place since the early 1970s.
Last spring, in response to a WBEZ investigation into the state’s inability to contain Legionnaires’ at the home, the legislature voted to increase those damage limits to $2 million and make that new benchmark applicable to the families’ cases.
But on Friday, Rauner contended doing so would lead Illinois’ cash-strapped treasury deeper into financial distress. He amendatorily vetoed the bill, setting the limits at $300,000.
“As proposed, this legislation could invite frivolous lawsuits and expose taxpayers to hundreds of millions of dollars of potential damages each year without adequate study or justification,” Rauner wrote in his veto message.
From the outset, the legislation put Rauner in a political trick box. Embracing the status quo, as Rauner did Friday, carried the risk of making the governor seem unsympathetic to the plight of the veterans’ families at Quincy. Accepting new limits could have been viewed as a tacit acknowledgment the state bungled its response to the outbreaks, something Rauner has never admitted.
One key lawmaker vowed an override of Rauner’s veto in November. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Tinley Park) and Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields), passed both chambers of the legislature last spring with majorities large enough to negate Rauner’s action Friday.
“This isn’t about trial lawyers. This isn’t about money. This is about justice for families for the governor’s gross negligence,” Hastings said. “He failed to act. He’s gotta live with his decisions. But the problem is that these families are gonna have to live with this guy’s failure for the rest of their lives and without their loved one.
“One way or the other, there will be justice for these families. That I promise you,” he said.
J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for governor, has made what he calls Rauner’s “fatal mismanagement” at the Illinois Veterans Home a central theme in this fall’s campaign.
The families’ cases have not been resolved at the Court of Claims because the Rauner administration has refused to settle the cases. His administration maintains the state was not negligent in its upkeep of the Quincy home, which opened in 1886 and once housed Civil War veterans.
A long-running WBEZ investigation was first to report on the families’ lawsuits and on the state’s justification in 2015 to wait six days from when it confirmed a Legionnaires’ outbreak before notifying residents and the public. Twelve residents died in the 2015 outbreak, and more than 60 residents and staff were sickened.
Even after WBEZ’s reporting, the governor stood by his administration’s responses to the ensuing crises and insisted investments in water treatment at the Quincy home left it with some of the cleanest water in Illinois.
To underscore that the home was safe, the governor also took the unexpected step of spending a week at the home in January and invited one of the residents he had befriended then to be his guest at the State of the State speech Rauner delivered in January.
But in February, that elderly Air Force veteran contracted Legionnaires’ and later died of other causes in May.
In June, Rauner linked flooding and tornadoes with the recurring Legionnaires’ cases, a contention that did not seem to have any grounding in fact.
The continuing illnesses and deaths and months of growing political pressure caused Rauner to embrace a $245 million rebuild of the Quincy home, something that had not been an active consideration prior to WBEZ’s reporting. Lawmakers backed funding for the plan in May.
Despite that movement, Rauner has not reconciled with families that lost loved ones at the facility and has been on the receiving end of harsh Twitter attacks from the son of one veteran, Eugene Miller.
Miller’s son, Tim, has posted images of his father’s flag-draped coffin and tombstone on Twitter and openly expressed contempt for Rauner and his unwillingness to accept responsibility for the state’s repeated failures at the home. Tim Miller said he voted for Rauner in 2014.
After Rauner’s veto on Friday, Miller tweeted that his lawsuit was never about the money.
“ … Whether it’s 300,000. or 2 mil or 10 dollars the whole point is they knew their (sic) was a problem they said nothing until it was to (sic) late,” he tweeted.