SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill Friday that would have increased potential negligence awards paid out by the state through the Court of Claims.
The bill was championed by Democratic lawmakers to benefit the families of veterans who died of Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy Veterans’ Home.
Under current law, claimants could collect no more than $100,000 from the state government. The new measure, Senate Bill 2481, would have increased the damage limits to $2 million.
Rauner blocked the bill. In his message to lawmakers, he recommended setting the award cap at $300,000.
The Court of Claims has jurisdiction for civil claims brought against the state or its agencies.
Rauner wrote in his veto message that raising the cap on damages from $100,000 to $2 million is “effectively ignoring the impact of vastly expanded future litigation on the fiscal position of the state and its taxpayers.”
“I recognize that the current law is outdated and in need of adjustment,” Rauner wrote. “However, the adjustments should reflect regional and national averages in order to properly compensate those who, once properly adjudicated, were found harmed by the state of Illinois.”
According to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, a plaintiff lawyers group that opposes caps on civil damages, the $100,000 cap set in 1971 is the lowest in the country.
Since 2015, 13 people have died at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy due to Legionnaires’ disease. An additional 60 have been reported as contracting the illness. Twelve of the 13 families who have lost members to the disease have sued the state.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionnaires’ disease is caused by breathing in small droplets of water that contain the bacteria Legionella, which is more prevalent in old water systems like the ones at the veterans’ home.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Michael Hastings of Tinley Park, said despite being “disappointed” in the governor’s actions, he wasn’t surprised.
“This isn’t about trial lawyers. This isn’t about money. This is about justice for families for the governor’s gross negligence,” Hastings said in an interview. “He failed to act. He has to live with his decisions. But the problem is that these families are going to have to live with this guy’s failure for the rest of their lives and also without their loved ones.”
Hastings said he has already talked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support overriding Rauner’s veto.
“I cannot begin to comprehend the loss these families have had to go through,” Hastings said. “This measure was a small attempt to help them obtain justice for these awful circumstances. However, the governor’s actions have stalled the wheels of justice once again.”
Rauner has continuously been criticized for not tackling the problem at the veterans’ home sooner. A December 2017 WBEZ report showed officials in the governor’s office were made aware of the outbreak a week before alerting the public.
In 2016, Rauner visited the home and told reporters the state was closely monitoring the water at the facility for bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, WBEZ reported.
However, months later, three more cases of Legionnaires’ disease hit the home, and at least one other person died.
Rauner, however, has said multiple times — including most recently on Aug. 20 — that his administration did well responding to the Legionnaires’ crisis despite 13 deaths and dozens of illnesses.
“Our team has done, by and large, an excellent job,” Rauner said in an interview with WGEM-TV in Quincy. “People aren’t perfect. Occasionally, some things stumble here and there.”
In response, Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker’s campaign spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said Rauner’s statement is proof of his “failed leadership.”
“Thirteen people died on Rauner’s watch, but he still has the gall to go on a Quincy TV station, rewrite history and insult those who lost loved ones,” Abudayyeh said in an e-mail.
ITLA President Mark D. Prince, of the Prince Law Firm in Carbondale, called the veto “heartless,” saying the governor “failed our veterans and their families.”
“From the outset of the crisis in Quincy that led to the tragic death of our heroes, the [g]overnor has been interested only in covering up, shifting blame and paying hollow lip service to the victims and their families,” Prince said in a written statement.
Hastings said he plans to organize an effort to override Rauner’s veto during November’s veto session.