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$176 Million Lawsuit Filed Over Coronavirus Outbreak At Holyoke Soldiers' Home

The Holyoke Soldier's Home
Mass.Dept of Veterans Services

      A lawsuit has been filed over the deadly coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ home.

    The family of a Korean War Army veteran, one of 76 people who died from COVID-19 at the state-run long term care facility, sued the home’s former superintendent, the state’s former veterans secretary, and three others alleging their actions allowed the coronavirus to ravage the home’s elderly residents.

    "This was a tragedy that never should have happened," said  Thomas Lesser, one of the family’s attorneys.

    The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield seeks certification as a class action and $176 million in damages.

    "76 people died and they are certainly entitled to a million dollars each and many people contracted COVID-19 and it is a figure that takes care of them and some number for punitive damages," said Lesser. "I thought that was a fair number albiet actually many people would have filed it with a much higher number."

    Speaking with reporters outside the federal courthouse in Springfield Friday, Lesser and attorney Michael Aleo invited more plaintiffs to join the lawsuit and said they may add more defendants.

    "We named the five people we thought were primarily responsible," said Lesser.

    The lawsuit names Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, who was suspended in March, Francisco Urena, the former state Secretary of Veteran Affairs who resigned in June, Dr. David Clinton, Vanessa Lauziere, and Celeste Surreira – three former medical officials at the Soldiers’ Home who were fired or resigned.

       The 29 page complaint states the Commonwealth made a promise to care for its “citizen-soldiers” after they had served their country and could no longer care for themselves, but did not keep that promise.

     Joseph Sniadach, the veteran whose family filed the lawsuit, was moved into one of the dementia units at the Soldiers’ Home in January and died on April 27th at the age of 84.   He is described in the lawsuit as “an energetic soul” who enjoyed sports, cigars, food, casinos and easily made friends.

    " The family thought he would be better cared for in the Soldiers' Home," said Lesser.  "He was ready to go out as soon as COVID ended and go to the casino again and have some fun. He never got that chance."

     The lawsuit heavily cites the scathing report from former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, who conducted an investigation of what happened at the Soldiers’ Home for Gov. Charlie Baker.

     That report said there were a litany of “utterly baffling” decisions made by the people in charge at the Soldiers’ Home.  It pointed to an especially fateful decision to combine two dementia wards, resulting in people infected with the coronavirus being put in close contact with residents who had not yet been infected.

     Other investigations into the Soldiers’ Home are being conducted by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the state’s inspector general, and the U.S. Justice Department.

     Baker has filed reform legislation but veterans’ advocates this week urged state lawmakers not to act until all the investigations are finished.

     Testifying at a hearing by the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, John Paradis, a former Deputy Superintendent at the home, said there should be more local input before any changes are made.

     "Truly listen to those who know the Soldiers' Home best and not what this administration tells you what they think is best," said Paradis.

     The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, which includes veterans’ advocates and residents’ family members, has called on the state to put up the matching funds for a major renovation of the home that was approved in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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