State’s ‘Lowball’ Settlement Offers ‘Insult’ Quincy Legionnaires’ Families

The Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy in December 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
The Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy in December 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

State’s ‘Lowball’ Settlement Offers ‘Insult’ Quincy Legionnaires’ Families

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Initial offers by Illinois’ attorney general to settle a dozen lawsuits linked to the state’s mishandling of fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy veterans’ home have been so sparse, some families are calling them “insulting.”

During Kwame Raoul’s campaign to become the state’s top law enforcement official, the Democrat called the state’s mishandling of the outbreaks “unconscionable.” Fourteen people died after getting Legionnaires’ at the largest state-run veterans’ home.

Following a WBEZ investigation into the outbreaks, then-state Sen. Raoul voted last fall to raise damage caps on lawsuits against the state to $2 million, and to make that increase retroactive to apply to a dozen families who lost loved ones at the Illinois Veterans Home and had pending negligence cases against the state.

But now, eight months into his first term as attorney general, Raoul has not settled any of the dozen Quincy lawsuits, though his office said Wednesday it is working toward a “just and appropriate resolution” to the cases.

To date, however, the attorney general has only made settlement offers that range between $200,000 and $500,000, WBEZ has learned.

That’s far below the new $2 million limit on potential payouts for which many of the families had assumed they would be eligible.

And it’s a pittance compared to what Legionnaires’-related illnesses and deaths have yielded in traditional legal venues outside the Illinois Court of Claims, which only handles lawsuits filed against the state. A 2012 outbreak at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Chicago killed three people. Juries later awarded nearly $2.3 million to the family of an 80-year-old who died, and $3.8 million to a 64-year-old attorney who got sick but recovered.

Raoul declined an interview request to discuss the pending lawsuits his office is handling on behalf of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration.

His office declined to speak publicly about the offers, which multiple sources have confirmed to WBEZ, and did not respond to a question about whether the attorney general now acknowledges the state’s liability for the deaths.

“As we do in all civil cases, particularly those involving families that have experienced the tragic loss of a loved one, we try to reach a result that achieves a degree of justice for the plaintiffs,” Raoul spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in a statement. “At the same time, we endeavor to balance the interests of the plaintiffs with our responsibility to the people of Illinois, on a case by case basis.

“While we are in the early stages of the settlement process and are continuing to negotiate with the families’ attorneys, which we will not do in the media, we strongly believe that we will achieve a just and appropriate resolution for the families and the people of the state of Illinois at large,” Thompson said.

But four years after the first wave of Legionnaires’ deaths at the home in west-central Illinois, some victims’ families are teeing off on the attorney general and the governor for not resolving the legal fight after Democrats made the failures in Quincy a key campaign theme last year.

“It’s disrespectful to the vets and their families to do this to us,” said Quincy resident Diane McHatton. Her father, World War II veteran Melvin Tucker, survived being shot down over Nazi Germany and spent 13 months as a prisoner of war only to die from the preventable, waterborne form of pneumonia at Quincy in 2015.

“Have respect for the people, the vets, the World War II vets. Have respect for them and their families for what they’ve done for this country. And let’s end this now, and tell me you didn’t just do this to be voted in,” she said.

Candidate Raoul: “Disturbing things happened” at Quincy

Since his election, Pritzker has urged a quick settlement to the Quincy lawsuits and said repeatedly that the families who lost loved ones deserved “justice.” The governor has since signed off on a $230 million plan to rebuild the Quincy home, which is about 300 miles southwest of Chicago.

But after relentlessly attacking Rauner for his handling of the rolling Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the facility, Pritzker has said the ball is in Raoul’s court when it comes to settling the lawsuits and determining what each case is worth.

In an emailed statement, Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the governor is “committed to ensuring that our veterans are treated with dignity,” and pointed to his plans to rebuild the Quincy home.

“While he has no constitutional role in these settlement negotiations and it would be inappropriate to interfere in negotiations, he firmly believes the families who endured tragedies at Quincy deserve justice,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Raoul’s office is still investigating potential criminal wrongdoing at the veterans’ home. And last fall, he went on record as a candidate more than once about how former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration mishandled the multiple outbreaks between 2015 and 2018.

“What we know is some disturbing things happened at the Quincy veterans’ home that led to deaths, and what we also know is there was a cover-up of that, and that’s very disturbing that that came from this administration,” Raoul said at a debate last October.

The next month, he and other lawmakers voted to override Rauner’s amendatory veto of legislation that raised the decades-old, lowest-in-the-nation $100,000 cap on Illinois Court of Claims awards in lawsuits against the state. Lawmakers ignored Rauner’s recommendation to limit the cap to $300,000 and voted to raise it to $2 million and make it retroactive to include the first Quincy lawsuits.

WBEZ has reported that state officials waited six days after confirming multiple Legionnaires’ cases in 2015 before notifying residents, their families and the public about the presence of the waterborne illness, a wait that families said deprived them of being able to move relatives out of the home or seek outside medical help when they first fell ill. The legislature passed a law last year that requires state veterans’ homes to provide public notice within 24 hours of confirming cases of Legionnaires’ or other communicable diseases.

And last March, an audit by Auditor General Frank Mautino attributed the “likely cause” of the 2015 fatal outbreak that caused 12 deaths to the facility’s errant release of up to 1,600 gallons of bacteria-laden water into the home’s water system. In an email obtained earlier by WBEZ, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health acknowledged that mistaken release of a “broth of legionella” and said the offense was serious enough to be cited as a violation of state rules, though no citation was ever issued.

Dem lawmaker: “Disappointing” offers to families despite new state law

One leading Democratic lawmaker, who co-sponsored the bill to increase the caps on damage awards, criticized the attorney general’s offers and said they are not consistent with the will of the Illinois General Assembly.

“The legislative intent that we passed is that we need to honor the veterans,” said state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We need to honor the individuals that served our country to a degree that’s befitting, and from what I’m hearing, it doesn’t seem that they’re there yet in the negotiations.”

Kifowit said families deserve more than what the attorney general’s office is offering.

“I’m thoroughly disappointed in the devaluation of veterans, especially these veterans who gave so much for their country and lost their lives while in the care of the state of Illinois,” Kifowit said. “It’s just disappointing overall and very sad.”

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, was the lead Senate sponsor of the legislation to raise potential court payouts. He said he can understand the families’ frustrations.

“I would be pretty disappointed if I got a lowball offer because the negligence of the state killed my loved one. No doubt in my mind,” Hastings told WBEZ. “However, the families should push on and seek justice and understand that the damages they can receive from the state now far surpass what they would have gotten from the Rauner administration.”

Victim’s son: “All of a sudden, there’s just nothing”

But there is a huge spread between the $2 million cap Hastings helped put into effect for the families and what the families have been offered.

Tim Miller’s father Eugene was a U.S. Army veteran who died of Legionnaires’ four years ago this week. Miller said the anniversary of his dad’s death is more painful than it should be because the state still hasn’t settled his and other families’ lawsuits in good faith.

“I know it bothers my brothers and sisters, and I know it bothers other families. We just want this to be over. We don’t want to have, to continue to have anniversaries where we have to do interviews about why the state isn’t doing the right thing,” said Miller, who outlined his father’s plight in a Pritzker campaign commercial last October.

Miller said he doesn’t regret appearing in the Pritzker political ad, but he still pins responsibility on all of Springfield — from Pritzker to the General Assembly to Raoul — for not getting the families’ lawsuits resolved.

“Somewhere in that mechanism of politics, something isn’t right,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right. It feels like everybody was on board, and everybody was supportive. Then all of a sudden, there’s just nothing.”

Springfield resident Steve French, whose mother was among the 2015 Legionnaires’ victims at the facility, said the attorney general’s offer to settle his family’s lawsuit is somewhere in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. French said his lawyer initially didn’t alert him about it because he regarded it as “an insult.”

The case of French’s 78-year-old mother, Dolores, has been one of the most shocking because it took the staff two days to find her body after she had been declared missing. In the end, she was found in her own room. The former Adams County coroner estimated she had been dead for up to 48 hours when she was discovered.

Earlier this month, French lost his brother, Richard, to cancer. Like him, Richard French was deeply invested in wanting to see justice surrounding his mother’s death and to see it properly acknowledged by the state.

“She was just there as an independent living resident and gets caught up in this horror story, and he struggled with that,” Steve French said. “He wanted some closure. He wanted something to come out of this, and now he won’t be able to see anything, and who knows what it will be anyway.”

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.