State sued over veteran’s COVID-19 death at LaSalle home

By Sarah Mansur  Capitol News Illinois

A COVID-19 outbreak that was reported on Nov. 1, 2020 eventually resulted in 36 residents dying from the disease.

SPRINGFIELD — A wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a Korean War veteran who contracted COVID-19 at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home accuses the facility of negligent care that violated state law.

Richard John Cieski Sr. was one of 36 veterans who died last year during the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle home that began in November.

Lawyers for Cieski’s estate said this legal action is the first civil lawsuit seeking to hold the state, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the LaSalle facility responsible for a COVID-19 related death at the state-run veterans home.

His estate seeks a $2 million judgment for the alleged negligence that his lawyers argue violated state law and caused Cieski’s death.

In a statement, a spokesperson for IDVA said, “We are deeply saddened by the deaths of our residents due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our hearts are with their families. Unfortunately, we cannot comment further due to pending litigation.”

Cieski died Nov. 15, at age 90, with COVID-19-related pneumonia listed as his cause of death, the lawsuit states. He had been living at the LaSalle facility since May 2017, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that the facility was negligent in its medical care and treatment of Cieski in violation of the state Nursing Home Care Act.

It claims that the LaSalle facility did not provide health care services consistent with guidance issued by the state and federal health authorities, did not adequately supply or properly use personal protective equipment, and did not take the necessary steps to provide medical care to patients with COVID-19 or to prevent further transmission of the virus.

The lawsuit comes after a joint report issued last month from two state agencies and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that found all four of the state-run veterans homes lacked standardized infection prevention policies.

In addition to the outbreak at LaSalle, the veterans homes at Quincy and Manteno also experienced coronavirus outbreaks since the pandemic began that resulted in 27 and 19 resident deaths, respectively. The home in Anna has not reported any resident deaths resulting from COVID-19 related illnesses.

The joint report was commissioned after the first on-site visit to LaSalle on Nov. 12 by the Illinois Department of Public Health, IDVA and the USDVA in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak there.

The initial report from the Nov. 12 on-site visit documented multiple violations of COVID-19 protocols — including inappropriate uses of personal protective equipment, violations of social distancing requirements and the use of less effective non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The coronavirus outbreak at LaSalle has prompted an independent investigation by the acting inspector general of the state Department of Human Services, as well as an investigation by the House Civil Judiciary Committee.

The LaSalle home administrator, Angela Mehlbrech, was fired in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed Terry Prince, a 31-year U.S. Navy veteran, as the new IDVA director.

Prince will serve as acting director pending a confirmation vote of the state Senate. He replaces former director Linda Chapa LaVia, who resigned in January following calls for her to step down due to the department’s handling of the outbreak at LaSalle. Peter Nezamis has been interim director since Chapa LaVia’s January resignation.

Cieski’s estate is represented by attorneys with Levin & Perconti, a Chicago-based law firm known for representing victims in nursing home abuse and neglect cases.

Levin & Perconti partner Michael Bonamarte said in a statement that Cieski’s death could have been avoided had LaSalle taken appropriate precautions.

“After seeing what was happening with outbreaks at facilities nationwide, LaSalle Veterans’ Home had plenty of time to order enough PPE and properly staff the home to care for the residents,” Bonamarte said in the statement.

Margaret Battersby Black, also a Levin & Perconti partner, said the lawsuit is about holding state officials accountable and ensuring that it never happens again.

“There were standards in place that should have been followed and practices that could have been enforced. An appropriately fast and comprehensive response to potential staff exposure to the virus could have saved lives, but, instead, the outbreak spread for 12 days before anyone from the state of Illinois even arrived to investigate it,” Black said in a statement.