Families lost loved ones to Legionnaires’ but can collect only minimal damages
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No amount of money is going to bring back Steve French’s mother or erase all of the horrible details surrounding her death from Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy.
The state knew it had an epidemic on its hands before she was sick. Someone at the home’s administrative office told French that his 78-year-old mother was OK when he called to check on her. At the time of his call, she actually was lying dead in her independent-living unit at the facility and may have been that way for a few days, according to court documents.
On its face, French’s wrongful-death case against the state appears to be almost a legal slam dunk. Yet, Illinois law caps any recovery for his mother’s survivors at $100,000 — the same ceiling on negligence claims against the state that’s been in place for decades.
“It’s almost like that whole law … protects them. It’s like it’s protecting a crime. It’s like they’re getting away with a crime because of that law,” French told WBEZ. “That limitation allows them to get away with it. I think it’s a crime. I think a crime was committed.”
For the past 46 years, the cap has stayed the same. That $100,000 threshold is the maximum allowed to 11 families suing because they lost loved ones in the 2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak. But that’s if their pending negligence cases against the state are upheld in an obscure legal venue known as the Illinois Court of Claims.
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Now, a top Illinois official who helps manage the Court of Claims wants legislators to remove that limit — at least at state-run veterans’ homes — as the Legionnaires’ crisis at Quincy rocks Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration and is seeping into this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
The families suing the state have all told WBEZ their cases are rooted less in landing a windfall than in establishing true responsibility for what they believe were preventable deaths and in prodding the state to make the facility safe.
Their cases contend Rauner’s administration acted negligently in failing to safeguard residents at the facility in 2015 despite knowing there had been earlier confirmed cases of Legionnaires’.
‘It’s a pittance for what these losses sometimes are’
When Illinois last raised its cap on negligence claims against the state, the median household income in America stood at $9,698, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was 36 cents, and the cost for a first-class postage stamp was 8 cents.
That was 1972, when state legislators voted to increase the limit on damages on claims against the state to $100,000, up from $25,000. The late state Sen. Philip J. Rock, a Democrat from Oak Park who went on to become Senate president, justified the increase at the time by saying $25,000 was “patently not enough.”
The most recent effort to change the negligence cap in Court of Claims cases occurred in 2016, when legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat, would have raised the $100,000 cap to $500,000.
That measure unanimously passed the Senate in April of that year but stalled in the House as Rauner and Democrats were in the middle of a record-setting, two-year fiscal stalemate that left Illinois without an operating budget.
The state has invested nearly $6.4 million in water-treatment upgrades at the Quincy facility since 2015 and put new diagnosis protocols in place for cases of suspected Legionnaires’. But there was another outbreak in 2016, and another last year, including a 13thfatality in October. That prompted the state to call in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess conditions at the facility.
A CDC report released Thursday — one day after Rauner moved into a room at the Quincy facility to learn more about living conditions there — warned that despite additional safeguards, “the possibility of future cases of disease associated [with the Quincy facility] cannot be eliminated.”
Currently, Rauner’s administration is refusing to concede that any negligence occurred on the part of the state in connection with the dozen deaths that occurred in 2015, creating a legal obstacle for the families in their pending cases now before the state Court of Claims.
“These cases are a tragedy, and our focus going forward is to reach a fair resolution as soon as we can,” said Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office is representing the Rauner administration against the families’ lawsuits.
Several of the families allege in their filings that the Quincy veterans’ home treated sick residents with Tylenol and did not push to quickly test them for Legionnaires’ despite knowing about a confirmed case of the disease on the campus almost a month before the 2015 outbreak was at its peak in late August of that year.
“I just always think it’s manifestly unfair to people that are injured by someone else’s negligence and or fault, where they have some limit on what they can recover,” said Ryan Schuenke, a Quincy lawyer representing two families with pending Court of Claims cases.
Additionally, when state government knows its maximum legal exposure in typical negligence cases is only $100,000 per claim, “it makes people less responsive and less proactive in dealing with problems,” Schuenke said.
The potential $100,000 cap on damages sought by Schuenke’s clients is mere pennies on the dollar compared to payouts in other Legionnaires’ wrongful-death cases outside the purview of state government.
A 2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak linked to a contaminated decorative fountain in the main lobby of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Chicago killed three people. A lawsuit against the hotel brought by a 64-year-old attorney, who was sickened during that outbreak but later recovered, yielded a Cook County jury verdict of $3.8 million. Another case involving an 80-year-old physician, who contracted the illness and died, produced a $2.27 million federal jury verdict in 2014, according to Steve Seidman, a Chicago lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in both cases.
“Granted, $100,000 is a lot of money. But at the end of the day, it’s a pittance for what these losses sometimes are,” he said.
Illinois negligence cap tied for the lowest in U.S.
Today, Illinois’ $100,000 cap on negligence claims against the state is 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.
Democratic Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White plans to make lifting that cap in cases involving neglect at state-run veterans’ homes a legislative “priority” this spring, a spokesman said.
As secretary of state, White serves as the ex-officio clerk of the Court of Claims.
“Secretary White has been stunned following the reporting WBEZ initiated and other members of the media picked up on about the problems at the veterans’ home in Quincy. You all brought to our attention that there is a cap of $100,000 in cases involving people in those circumstances, and Secretary White is proposing to remove that cap in the cases of veterans in state nursing homes,” White spokesman Dave Druker told WBEZ.
Specific legislation has not yet been drafted, though Druker said it would not apply retroactively to the 11 families now seeking relief through the Court of Claims.
A spokeswoman for Rauner declined to say whether the initiative is one the governor might be willing to support. WBEZ has made several requests to interview the governor about the state’s handling of the Legionnaires’ outbreaks, to no avail.
The story was written and reported by WBEZ reporters Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold. For more of the story, go to wbez.org or listen to WBEZ Chicago Public Media at 91.5 FM.