$176M lawsuit filed in Soldiers’ Home COVID-19 deaths 

  • Attorneys Thomas Lesser, left, and Michael Aleo announce the suit against people involved in the COVID-19 outbreak at the home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Attorneys Thomas Lesser, left, and Michael Aleo announce the filing of a class action suit against suspended Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennet Walsh, former Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena and two other Solders’ Home employees in the deaths of 76 veterans of COVID-19. The partners in the Northampton law firm of Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser made the announcement outside the U.S. District Court in Springfield on Friday, July 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Reporters gather to hear attorneys Thomas Lesser, left, and Michael Aleo announce the filing of a class-action suit against Holyoke Soldiers’ supervisors and a state official. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Attorney Michael Aleo speaks at the announcement of a class action suit being filed against suspended Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennet Walsh, former Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena and two other Soldiers’ Home employees in the deaths of 76 veterans of COVID-19. The partners in the Northampton law firm of Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser made the announcement outside the U.S. District Court in Springfield on Friday, July 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2020 6:41:41 PM

SPRINGFIELD — At the beginning of this year, Korean War veteran Joseph Sniadach moved from living with his family in Hadley to one of the dementia units at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. His family believed the 84-year-old veteran would be better served at an assisted living facility — but four months later, in April, Sniadach died after contracting COVID-19.

On Friday, Sniadach’s estate filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Springfield, arguing that suspended Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh, former secretary of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena and three other medical and nursing employees at the home are responsible for the deaths of 76 veterans from the disease and the illnesses of 84 more.

“This was a tragedy that never should have happened,” said Thomas Lesser, an attorney for Sniadach’s family, as he stood outside of the federal courthouse Friday next to another of the family’s attorneys, Michael Aleo. “But this case seeks to right those wrongs. It seeks to provide a statement of wrongdoing and afford those citizen-soldiers, and their families, some modicum of respect for what they gave us.”

The lawyers said they are seeking $176 million in damages.

In addition to Walsh and Urena, the lawsuit names as defendants Dr. David Clinton, former medical director of the Soldiers’ Home; Vanessa Lauziere, former chief nursing officer; and Celeste Surreira, former assistant director of nursing.

“Each of these five defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, an indifference that resulted in the spread of COVID-19 throughout the Soldiers’ Home,” the lawsuit alleges. “The spread of COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home was preventable.”

The lawsuit seeks a trial by jury and a certification of a class of Soldiers’ Home residents who were either infected with COVID-19 or died after contracting the virus. Although it is a class-action lawsuit, Lesser, of Northampton law firm Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser LLP, said he expects more plaintiffs to be added to the case in the future. Asked how the $176 million number was determined, Lesser said the 76 people who died were entitled to $1 million each.

“It’s a figure that takes care of them, and some number for punitive damages,” Lesser said.

The lawsuit does not name Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders or any current state government officials as defendants. Attorneys have considered adding other defendants, Lesser said. He said Sudders “did the appropriate things” when she coordinated an emergency response team at the facility. 

“We named the five people we felt were primarily responsible,” Lesser said.

Walsh’s attorney and uncle, former Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett, declined to comment for this story.

A lawyer hired by Gov. Charlie Baker released a report in June that found leadership at the Soldiers’ Home made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the virus’s death toll. It slammed the decision by officials at the home to combine two crowded dementia units on March 27 as a “catastrophe” that resulted in “the opposite of infection control.” 

The lawsuit states that in February, the state of Massachusetts as well as the U.S. government began providing guidance, including to the Soldiers’ Home, on how to effectively protect people from COVID-19, directing facilities to identify infected patients and then isolate them. No isolation rooms were ever used during Walsh’s tenure leading the facility, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit argues that the defendants did not properly isolate the first veteran diagnosed with COVID-19 from other residents at the home. According to the report released by the lawyer hired by Baker, Walsh told Urena that the veteran with COVID-19 was isolated; the lawsuit states what Walsh told Urena was false.

“In Dr. Clinton’s opinion, consideration of whether to isolate him was ‘a moot point’ since ‘everyone has been exposed [to COVID-19] already,’” the lawsuit states, citing the report.

Eventually, officials at the Soldiers’ Home decided to combine its two dementia units, “despite the fact that several veterans in those units had already been diagnosed with COVID-19 and were obviously at high risk of transmitting the virus to others,” according to the lawsuit.

Walsh, Clinton, Lauziere and Surreira were each involved in this decision, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges Urena knew of the units’ COVID-19-positive population and did not object to combining units. The lawsuit also alleges that Urena was “well aware of Mr. Walsh’s shortcomings as Superintendent and took inadequate steps to protect the veterans at the Soldiers’ Home and keep them safe from harm.”

Lesser said officials at the Soldiers’ Home “inexplicably” made the decision to combine its dementia units.

“What’s really extraordinary about this, is the day they combined those units, they had 13 or 14 body bags sent to the institution that they knew they were going to use,” Lesser said. “They knew this was going to happen. That’s callous disregard. That’s indifference to people’s pain and suffering — that’s indifference to human lives.”

The lawsuit describes Sniadach as “an energetic soul” who enjoyed sports, cigars, food, casinos and socializing with family and friends.

“He was ready to go out, as soon as COVID ended … to the casino again and have some fun,” Lesser said. “He never got that chance.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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