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Family Of Deceased Veteran Brings Federal Lawsuit Against State And Holyoke Soldiers' Home Leaders

Flags outside of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. (Miriam Wasser/WBUR)
Flags outside of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. (Miriam Wasser/WBUR)

The family of Korean War veteran Joseph Sniadach, who died from COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, has filed a federal class action lawsuit against former state Secretary of Veterans Affairs Francisco Urena, now-fired superintendent of the state-run nursing home Bennett Walsh and three former medical leaders.

The complaint alleges that the five defendants acted with “deliberate indifference to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and that as a result, their actions allowed a “preventable” outbreak of the virus. To date, 76 veterans at the home have died from COVID-19. Another 82 residents and 83 staff contracted the virus; all have clinically recovered, according to the state.

The behavior of the defendants — Urena, Walsh, former medical director David Clinton, former chief nursing officer Vanessa Lauziere and former assistant director of nursing Celeste Surreira — was “unprofessional, unethical” and “by any standard amounted to a callous disregard for the health and safety of the veterans residing in the Soldiers’ Home,” the complaint states.

“This was a tragedy that never should have happened," attorney Thomas Lesser said at a press conference Friday outside the U.S. District courthouse in Springfield. Lesser and his colleague, Michael Aleo, say they expect more families to join the lawsuit, and that they haven’t ruled out the possibility of suing the state directly.

This appears to be the first legal action taken against state and home leaders for what has proved to be one of the most deadly outbreaks of the virus in the country. It comes less than a month after an independent investigation into the crisis conducted by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein placed much of the blame on Urena, Walsh and other facility leaders.

Attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo outside the federal courthouse in Springfield. (Alden Bourne/NEPM)
Attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo outside the federal courthouse in Springfield. (Alden Bourne/NEPM)

Among the problematic actions described in the complaint is what Pearlstein deemed the “utterly baffling” decision to combine two floors of dementia patients on March 27. The move mixed residents who had the virus with those who didn’t and was, to quote Pearlstein, “the opposite of infection control."

“Basic epidemiology 101 [says] you do two things. You identify people who have the illness and if it’s contagious, you isolate them. [Leadership at the home] failed both of those 101 standards," Lesser said.

He added that "what's really extraordinary is that the day they combined these units, they had 13 body bags sent to the facility because they knew they were going to use them. They knew this was going to happen. That’s callous disregard and indifference to pain and suffering."

Employees of the Soldiers' Home have previously told WBUR that the decision to combine units was when "the snowball effect [started] and everything went downhill.”

The complaint also alleges that Walsh, Clinton, Lauziere and Surreira "consistently failed to exercise minimally adequate professional judgment in the administration of the Soldiers' Home during the pandemic." The four are accused of not properly isolating sick veterans, failing to provide employees and residents with necessary personal protective equipment and flagrantly disregarding medical directives from the state and federal government as the health crisis unfolded.

A lawyer for Walsh confirmed he had received the complaint and said he'd likely make a statement next week.

Urena, meanwhile, is named in the complaint for his failure to ensure that Walsh's lack of medical background and other well-known "shortcomings" didn't get in the way of caring for veterans. The complaint goes so far as to say that "the crisis at the Soldiers' Home would have been averted had Secretary Urena not acted with deliberate indifference and substantially departed from accepted professional standards."

Urena could not immediately be reached for comment. In a statement, a spokesperson for the state's Executive Office of Health and Human services said the state "does not comment on pending litigation."

"The events that took place at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home are tragic and Attorney Mark Pearlstein was hired to conduct a thorough, independent investigation of what occurred," the statement said, adding that Gov. Charlie Baker's administration has announced "reforms to strengthen the oversight and operations of the Home."

“We fully understand that no legal proceeding can ever restore the lives of these 76 veterans who served our country, and we fully understand that nothing we do can bring back the health of the other 80 veterans who contracted the virus,” Lesser said. “But this case seeks to right those wrongs [spelled out in the complaint] and to afford those citizen soldiers and their families some modicum of respect for what they gave us.”

The veteran at the center of the complaint, Korean War veteran Joseph Sniadach, was said to be "an energetic soul who easily connected with people." He moved to Hadley, Massachusetts, a few years ago to be closer to family, and was admitted into a dementia unit at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in January. During his short stay there, he contracted the virus and was at some point transferred to the Holyoke Medical Center, where he died on April 27.

"From the time that Joseph was diagnosed with COVID-19 through the time of his death, Joseph experienced conscious pain and suffering," the complaint says.

According to Lesser, the plaintiffs are asking for $176 million in restitution.

This article was originally published on July 17, 2020.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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