Updated 4 p.m.
After lingering for more than two years, Illinois Gov.-elect JB Pritzker said Friday he intends to settle 12 negligence lawsuits brought by the families of those who died of Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.
Pritzker’s comments come after state legislators this week approved raising the potential limit that the state could have to pay out in damages to $2 million.
“I think there’s the opportunity now for fair settlements to be reached, and there’s no doubt we’re gonna move forward and try to get justice for all the families affected,” Pritzker said. “There were mistakes made, and I think we’re gonna have to work out going forward on a settlement basis likely what each family will receive.”
Ahead of November’s election, the Democrat heavily campaigned against his Republican opponent, Gov. Bruce Rauner, on the issue of the Quincy veterans’ home, claiming Rauner “failed” the veterans who live at the home.
Rauner has fought the families’ lawsuits, denying that his office and his administration were negligent in addressing Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the veterans’ home in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Rauner’s administration maintains it acted quickly to stanch the public health crisis, but some families and veterans’ home workers say they were kept in the dark about the outbreaks.
The attorney general has defended the state in these lawsuits. Attorney General-elect Kwame Raoul would not comment on Pritzker’s statements.
Attorneys representing some of the 12 families praised Pritzker’s vow to settle the suits.
“It’s incredibly refreshing to see that a governor will acknowledge mistakes occur,” said Steven Jambois, who represents the family of Korean War veteran Valdemar “Roy” Dehn. “The first step into preventing those in the future is acknowledging that they did occur and then make sure they don’t occur in the future.”
As Pritzker opened the door to settlement talks with the families, he was unclear on whether the state would continue to deny negligence in its handling of the outbreaks because he said there’s still a lot of information left out of the public eye.
Acknowledging WBEZ’s yearlong investigation into the outbreaks and the state’s response, Pritzker said he would leave it up to attorneys representing the state — in this instance, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office — as to whether to admit negligence.
“Frankly, (WBEZ) had to do a lot of work to uncover things in your media outlet to help bring everybody up to speed on understanding what really happened,” Pritzker said. “I think there’s probably more to understand reading the files and getting more intimately involved.”
WBEZ fought with Rauner’s administration for months to get access to tens of thousands of emails and documents relating to the state’s handling of the successive outbreaks.
Less than four days before the Nov. 6 election, Rauner’s office ordered the release of more than 130,000 pages of emails. One shows the governor’s top health official, Nirav Shah, knew that a bungled water tank repair might have contributed to the release of legionella bacteria into the home’s water supply, but chose not to issue a citation to the Illinois Veterans Home for its mistake.
Since 1972, Illinois law limited what anyone who brought claims against the state could win in court at $100,000. Legislators pushed to raise that cap to $2 million after WBEZ reported Illinois tied with other states for having the lowest claims cap in the country.
By contrast, when a 2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak linked to a contaminated fountain in Chicago’s J.W. Marriott Hotel killed three people, juries handed out two multimillion dollar awards.
On Thursday, during his first press conference since losing re-election, Rauner warned that the higher cap means plaintiffs’ attorneys will now seek to file frivolous lawsuits against the state. Rauner had used his amendatory veto power to try and raise the cap only to $300,000, but lawmakers overrode him.
He denied that his opposition came from the fact that the legislation retroactively included the families suing over the deaths at the Quincy veterans’ home.
“Now, the incentive for the trial bar, the plaintiffs’ bar, to go look for problems, challenge, try to find problems, sue — the risk-reward for them to spend some time proactively suing now that the balance is on the side of, ‘Yeah, go ahead and sue,’” Rauner said Thursday.
Families have repeatedly told WBEZ they aren’t suing the state to get rich. Eleven of the families’ lawsuits were filed more than two years before anyone in Springfield was talking about raising the awards cap.
But Jambois contended having such a low limit go untouched for 46 years exacerbated problems in state government.
“It basically protected horrible behavior or behavior that was correctable,” Jambois said of the old $100,000 limit. “It’s hardly going to create a situation where people or lawyers are running amok or people are creating lawsuits that don’t exist. We have plenty of checks and balances to eliminate that situation.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.