Veterans’ families reach $56M settlement with state over Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID outbreak

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Attorneys Thomas Lesser, left, and Michael Aleo announce the filing of a class-action suit against former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennet Walsh and four others in the deaths of 76 veterans at the home of COVID-19. The partners in the Northampton law firm made the announcement outside the U.S. District Court in Springfield on Friday, July 17, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Signs, flags, flowers and wreaths are placed at the entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Wednesday, Apr. 8, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Bennett Walsh, former superintendent of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, listens to arguments during a hearing to dismiss charges of criminal neglect that arose from the COVID-19 breakout at the facility against him and former medical director Dr. David Clinton, in Hampden Superior Court, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Springfield. DON TREEGER/THE REPUBLICAN VIA AP

Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2022 9:49:31 AM
Modified: 5/13/2022 9:47:54 AM

HOLYOKE — The families of veterans who died or were infected during a widespread coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in 2020 have settled their lawsuit against the state after reaching a $56 million agreement.

In a court hearing Thursday morning, attorneys for the veterans and their families announced that they had reached a $56 million settlement with the office of Gov. Charlie Baker in the class-action lawsuit that alleged the state had failed in its obligation to take care of the veterans who lived there. The veterans and their families were represented by attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo of the Northampton law firm Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser.

“After many months of intensive negotiations with the governor’s office, we have reached a $56 million settlement, which we are confident is extremely fair to the plaintiffs,” Lesser said in a telephone conference Thursday.

The coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke began in late March 2020, and within two months had killed at least 76 veteran residents of the home and infected more than 80 employees. A defining moment of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts, the outbreak was one of the deadliest in the country.

The settlement is broken down into two classes, Lesser said: the estates of veterans who contracted COVID-19 and died before June 23, 2020, and those veterans who got COVID-19 but survived past that date. There are 84 identified members of each of those groups, he added. The settlement will provide an average of $510,000 to the estates of the veterans who contracted COVID-19 and died and an average award of $20,000 for those veterans who got COVID-19 but survived, according to Lesser and Aleo. Donald Stern, a former U.S. Attorney, will be appointed as the claims administrator who decides what each family is ultimately paid.

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker said that in the coming weeks he intends to file legislation seeking the $56 million for the claims fund.

“The COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a terrible tragedy,” Baker said. “While we know nothing can bring back those who were lost, we hope that this settlement brings a sense of closure to the loved ones of the veterans.”

The lawyers initially sought $176 million in the case, naming as defendants medical leadership at the home such as former superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton, as well as former state secretary of veterans services Francisco Urena. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders was later added as a defendant.

In a phone interview Thursday, Aleo said that he and the families were “pleased by the result but with a heavy heart.” He said settling was the best choice given the legal obstacles to prevailing in the case, the complexities of collecting any judgement that might have been awarded, and the trauma families would have to endure through possible years of litigation, with no promise that they’d win the lawsuit in the end.

“The families have mixed reactions,” he said, noting that no amount of money can bring back the veterans who have died or erase the suffering that the tragedy caused. “It’s bittersweet. As we’re explaining the terms to families, there are plenty of tears that have been shed.”

Lawyers in the case will be paid just over $11 million in attorney fees that come out of the total settlement, Aleo said. He noted that those fees do not reduce the minimum amounts that will go to each family — no less than $10,000 for those veterans who survived and no less than $400,000 for the estates of those who died.

The outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home sparked state and federal investigations. State Attorney General Maura Healey brought criminal neglect charges against Walsh and Clinton over their roles in the outbreak. In November, a Hampden Superior Court judge dismissed those charges, though Healey’s office has appealed that decision.

In addition to the veterans’ civil suit against the state, employees of the Soldiers’ Home also filed a class-action lawsuit against several members of the facility’s former leaders. The staffers alleged that they had been forced to work in “inhumane conditions” as they cared for sick and dying veterans, without adequate protection or infection-control protocols.

In June 2020, a lawyer hired by Baker to investigate the outbreak found that Soldiers’ Home leadership made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll at the facility.

The investigation, led by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, found that Walsh and other administrators made critical decisions during the final two weeks of March that were “utterly baffling from an infection-control perspective.” In particular, the 174-page report slammed the combining of two already crowded dementia units as the “worst decision,” resulting in conditions that staff described as “a nightmare,” “total pandemonium” and resembling “a war zone.”

The original plaintiff in the families’ lawsuit was Korean War veteran Joseph Sniadach, who had moved from living with his family in Hadley to one of those dementia units. Soon other families joined in the class-action suit.

Last May, an investigation from The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team found that Pearlstein’s report contained “significant errors and omissions” that shielded Baker and Sudders from criticism. Baker has denied those claims. The newspaper’s investigation also characterized Walsh — the son of longtime Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh — as “a politically connected hire by Baker that went disastrously wrong.”

Late last month, the state Inspector General released a report that found Walsh — though he had inherited some problems when he took over the facility in 2016 — “did not develop the leadership capacity or temperament for the role of superintendent.” The investigation concluded that Walsh “created an unprofessional and negative work environment, retaliated against employees he deemed disloyal, demonstrated a lack of engagement in the home’s operations and circumvented his chain of command.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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