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'Be as objective and fair as I can': Soldiers' Home claims administrator on process to divvy up $56M

Army Specialist Samantha James, a Massachusetts National Guardsman,  makes a resident’s bed at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass. A cluster of COVID-19 cases were reported at the home, and the National Guard was called to provide extra staff.
Army Spc. Samuel D. Keenan
/
Massachusetts National Guard
Army Specialist Samantha James, a Massachusetts National Guardsman, makes a resident’s bed at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass. A cluster of COVID-19 cases were reported at the home, and the National Guard was called to provide extra staff.

Massachusetts has agreed to pay $56 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by veterans who contracted COVID-19 and the families of veterans who died at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in a 2020 outbreak.

Making sure the money is appropriately distributed will be the job of Donald K. Stern. He's a former U.S. attorney in Massachusetts who now works as a corporate and court-appointed monitor and claims administrator.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs said there were 84 veterans who died and also 84 who were infected with COVID-19 during an outbreak at the state-run facility between March and June of 2020.

Stern said the parties expect that to be the number of claimants — 168 — to receive a settlement payout.

Donald Stern: It is certainly conceivable that somebody else will come forward whose name is not on the current list and say [their] father or [their] loved one was there, fits into the definition of that class, and they died, and therefore they're entitled to some compensation. But I certainly don't expect that, but I wouldn't preclude that possibility.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So, according to the terms worked out with the state, there will be two classes of veterans who will be compensated. The estates of the veterans who died before June 23, 2020, and veterans who were ill with COVID but survived beyond that date. So, how will this process unfold? How are you going to equitably distribute $56 million?

Well, some of it has already been accounted for in the sense that the parties negotiated and the court has tentatively approved a settlement which, as you describe, has two classes, but there's a kind of a minimum compensation level for each class. So in the case of those who died, their estates will receive at least $400,000 each. For those who contracted COVID during that period, but who survived, fortunately, they'll be entitled to less compensation, but no less than $10,000.

And then the claims administrator, which is me in this case, has a discretion to go above that floor, but not below that floor. So, in other words, there's a sum of money which is already accounted for as part of that $56 million. And then there is, let's call it, a discretionary pool of additional money, and it'll be my job to figure out how to fairly and equitably distribute those funds.

So what factors will you be considering in those final payments?

Well, in the settlement agreement, the parties have identified some, which they consider to be relevant. And specifically, it's the veteran's age, the severity and duration of the suffering, any future earnings and support which the veteran would have provided to others (this obviously is most relevant for those who died and their heirs and beneficiaries of their estate), the frequency of contact that the veteran had with family members, and then the settlement goes on to say and "any other information" that the claimant considers to be relevant.

So, there's some specific items that are mentioned, but it's not intended as an exclusive list. And I'm open to hearing and receiving material that any claimant thinks is relevant.

Is $56 million going to be enough money to compensate the victims? Is there a mechanism in place where you could request more if needed?

As far as I understand it, there's not. That's a fair question: Is any dollar amount ever enough to compensate in a situation like this? Unfortunately, our legal system puts dollar signs on these things, and that's the system that we have.

I should say that the settlement is contingent upon the Legislature appropriating $56 million. So the governor, I understand it, has filed the appropriate request with the legislature. I think the parties are assuming that before the Legislature goes into recess for this year — I think it's expected to be ... July — that they will act, and I certainly would hope that that's the case. So, the answer to your question is there is a settlement fund and that settlement fund is fixed and that is dependent actually in turn upon the Legislature actually appropriating money.

I imagine this is going to be a kind of tough job. You're going to hear from victims and families and all the stories. And you get to weigh all of those details and determine the awards. Is there another time in your career, perhaps another case that may have carried as much emotional weight as this probably will?

Well, you know, as a prosecutor, as you pointed out in your introduction, I was the United States attorney in Massachusetts. And I would often meet with victims. And, like this, it's a humbling kind of experience because, as you indicate, these are not numbers or names on a piece of paper. These are real lives and real families.

So, you know, I'm expecting that there will be some emotion associated with it, certainly for those who are filing claims. But frankly, my job is to put some of that to one side and to just be as objective and fair as I can, and that's what I expect to do.

Finally, what is success going to look like in this assignment for you and what is your projected date to finish?

Well, the projected date is to reach determination sometime, I think, it's by early November. Maybe earlier than that, there will be a final settlement hearing before the federal judge. The date hasn't been scheduled, but it is likely to be in mid-November. And if all goes well, I would expect that the checks would be cut and sent to claimants by the end of the calendar year.

I want to say, Carrie, that we've done a mailing, which went out June 17 to all of the, at least, known contacts that the parties believe is appropriate. We sent certified mail to all of the contacts of veterans if they're still in the veterans' home, relatives, if we have contacts, executors of estates, if we have that information. So there should be a packet of material which all the claimants at this point have. We've also set up a dedicated phone number which people can call, which is 617-807-1128.

I didn't answer your question about what is success. What success will look like is a fair allocation of the money, people having a sense that they were listened to and that and they walked away. Are they happy? No. They lost their loved ones. They're not happy about that. But a sense that given the constraints that I have in passing out the money, that it was a fair process.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.