LaSalle County court advances legal proceedings in COVID-19 veteran deaths case after 2-year delay

Legal proceedings will move forward in a LaSalle County court in connection with the deaths of three dozen veterans who died at a Veterans Affairs facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than two years since they first filed suit, some of the families tell FOX 32 Chicago they still do not have closure. They also say they feel the State of Illinois has not done enough to resolve the lengthy legal battle and are asking for accountability.

Now, they hope a judge's recent ruling will lead to justice for their loved ones.

"It’s hard. It’s hard that he got robbed of the rest of the years that he had, and he had a lot more years left in him," said Lindsay Lamb.

Richard Cieski, who served in the Korean War, is one of veterans who died when COVID swept through the LaSalle Veterans Home in 2020.

"It’s been some time now, everyone sort of forgot about it, well we didn’t," said Lamb, who is Cieski’s granddaughter. "It’s frustrating that no one is taking responsibility for what happened."

Lamb and her loved ones are among 32 families suing several medical officials who were working at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs during the pandemic.

There has been little movement in court, but now those lawsuits may finally move forward.

A judge, last month, denied the defendants' request to move the cases into the Court of Claims.

Just this week – the last of the amended lawsuits were filed in LaSalle County.

"I think that the judge got it right, the motions were denied. The cases are going to remain pending in LaSalle County Court, and if necessary, they will be tried in front of the citizens of that county," said Mike Bonamarte, managing partner, Levin & Perconti.

"I think all of the veterans would still be here today, and their families wouldn't have had to go through this, but it's like they're being re-traumatized," he added. "If the state does not step up and resolve these cases, we will be fully prepared to try every single one of them."

Between November 2020 and January 2021, a total of 36 veterans died during the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

In the months that followed, an inspector general launched an investigation and issued a 50-page report, finding that health and safety protocols were ignored, citing a "failure of leadership."

"The inspector general’s report – scathing," said John Lundquist. "Again, we put our trust in LaSalle."

Lundquist's father, Richard, was a Navy veteran and died during the outbreak.  

"It’s kind of been a ‘hurry up and wait’ situation," said Lundquist.

Mary Beth Schomas' father, Bernard, who served in World War II also died at LaSalle Veterans Home because of the outbreak.

"I think what’s really hard is that the state admitted guilt. I think they should be held accountable," said Schomas. "The State of Illinois did not do what was best for the veterans and now they are not doing what’s best for the families so that we can all move on."

Bonamarte, whose firm is representing 31 of the 32 families who are taking legal action, did not disclose how much in damages they are asking for.

Their next court date is set for June.

FOX 32 Chicago reached out to the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs for comment but did not immediately hear back.

A spokesman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said they "do not comment on pending litigation."

Attorneys representing the defendants also had ‘no comment.’