Families of Legionnaires’ victims at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy can now receive up to $2 million dollars in damages if they win their negligence lawsuits against the state of Illinois.
In a debate Tuesday that turned ugly and personal, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto by the bare minimum, with a vote of 71-36.
The new law will retroactively allow the higher legal payouts in 12 pending lawsuits against the state.
Eleven of the neglect lawsuits stem from the 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy, in which 12 residents died and dozens more were sickened. The 12th lawsuit results from another Legionnaires’-related death in 2017.’
Repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been the subject of a year-long WBEZ investigation into how Rauner’s administration has handled the public health crisis.
Many of the families who are suing have told WBEZ their lawsuits were not filed to get rich, but to hold the state accountable for the deaths of their parents. Before Tuesday’s vote, state law capped what the families could win in damages at $100,000.
Illinois’ $100,000 cap on Court of Claims judgments had been in place since 1972 and was the lowest in America, tied with five other states, according to the American Association for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing trial lawyers.
Rauner, who has denied his office or administration has been neglectful in the handling of the outbreaks, used his amendatory veto to change that amount to $300,000 in August. He and other Republican lawmakers said their opposition to the measure stemmed from the fact that the bill also increases the payouts to future lawsuits against the state unrelated to the Quincy veterans’ home.
“We don’t even know how much this bill is going to cost, all we know is it’s going to cost us a lot,” Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) said during Tuesday’s debate. “We know the personal injury lawyers are going to make out like bandits.”
The House debate Tuesday then turned ugly when Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) suggested giving Legionnaires’-infected water to Breen’s family.
“To the representative from Lombard, I would like to make him a broth of legionella and pump it into the water system of his loved one so that they can be infected, they can be mistreated, they can sit and suffer by getting aspirin instead of being properly treated and ultimately die,” Kifowit said during the floor debate.
Three Republican lawmakers who had voted in favor of the bill in May — including Breen — switched their votes from yes to no. Four other Republicans who voted yes were either absent for Tuesday’s vote or chose not to vote.
Breen’s Republican colleagues demanded an apology, but Kifowit said they “mischaracterized” her words when she had intended them to be hypothetical. She did not publicly apologize.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.