New Jersey has agreed to pay another $15.9 million to those who lost loved ones in the state-run veteran’s homes in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the terms of an agreement obtained by NJ Advance Media.
The out-of-court settlement, confirmed by an official in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, resolves an additional 71 claims alleging that the state’s negligence and incompetence were largely to blame for the deadly COVID-19 outbreak that raged out of control for months through New Jersey’s three veteran’s homes in early 2020.
The state admitted no wrongdoing.
Two of the veteran’s homes — one in Menlo Park and a second in Paramus — reported some of the highest COVID-related death tolls in the nation. A third facility is in Vineland.
The agreement marks the second major settlement of wrongful death claims involving the vulnerable long-term care facilities. The state in December agreed to pay nearly $53 million to the families of 119 residents whose deaths were attributed to the coronavirus between March and May of 2020.
Overall, COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 200 residents and staff in the veteran’s homes, according to the state. But one attorney who represents dozens of families who have sued the state suggests the number of fatalities may actually be as many as 240.
When cases suddenly began climbing in 2020, New Jersey was forced to seek emergency assistance from the Veterans Administration and the National Guard — moves that were criticized as being too little and too late. Murphy later announced major personnel changes involving the administration of those nursing facilities, which serve military veterans and their spouses.
As the scope of the death toll became evident, though, many families who later sued the state lay the blame on staff directives prohibiting the use of masks or gloves, because it “might scare residents.” Administrators of the facilities were also accused of failing to institute proper infection prevention measures — despite clear evidence of just how quickly COVID was spreading.
In addition, there were allegations that those in charge waited far too long before isolating confirmed or suspected COVID-19 residents, and that staff members who had tested positive for the virus, or those who had been exposed, were nevertheless still permitted to continue to work, as the veteran’s facilities struggled with severe shortages of medical staff and nurse aides.
A federal investigation into the deaths at the facilities, meanwhile, is still ongoing, as are two separate state investigations.
The state’s initial settlement in December was expected to pay families of those who died at the veteran’s homes in early 2020 an average $445,000, based on arbitration proceedings.
The new agreement with an additional 71 families will be less, largely because the new cases had been filed after a deadline for such tort claims against the state, according to officials involved in the negotiations.
Those families did not came forward until after the December agreement was reached, raising the same claims. Under the terms of Friday’s agreement, they are expected to receive on average $225,000 — again with the amount based on arbitration proceedings. Those payment will be made in a lump sum, according to a term sheet, for a total settlement of $15,975,000.
The administration official, speaking on background, said the settlement was aimed at “balancing the desire to get families some type of compensation,” while recognizing the obligation to limit the state’s financial exposure.
“We didn’t want the families to endure years of uncertainty and years of litigation,” the official said. “We’re hoping the settlement affords those families some level of closure and allows them to move forward.”
Attorney Paul M. da Costa of Roseland, who represented 55 of the 71 families involved in the settlement, confirmed an agreement had been reached.
“My clients, on balance, think it is a fair and reasonable settlement, especially in the context that they were confronted with the state’s Tort Claims Act, which acts as a secondary statute of limitations,” he said. It only came into play because those he had represented reached out and filed suit after more than a year had elapsed.
“On balance, the prospect of many years of litigation, versus giving these families much needed closure, was an easy decision for them,” said da Costa. “The amount of the settlements do represent what is considered to be above average for nursing home deaths and represents still a successful outcome for my clients.”
The agreement with New Jersey settles all outstanding cases involving the state veteran’s homes regarding COVID deaths in the initial months of the pandemic, although there are other lawsuits against New Jersey still pending that involve deaths in non-state-run nursing homes, the administration official said.
New Jersey is not the only state that reached a settlement over failures of care in its veterans facilities. In May, Massachusetts said it agreed to pay $56 million to resolve claims that those responsible for a state-run nursing home for veterans showed deliberate indifference during a coronavirus outbreak that was linked to the deaths of 84 residents early in the pandemic.
The settlement, in which the state admitted no wrongdoing, brought an end to a federal class action lawsuit by families of veterans who died as a result of the 2020 outbreak at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Under the settlement, families of deceased veterans would receive a minimum of $400,000, while veterans who contracted COVID-19 but survived would receive at least $10,000, according to Massachusetts state officials.
COVID cases, in the meantime,have not gone away in the veteran’s homes in New Jersey.
The Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison has been living with a COVID-19 outbreak since Thanksgiving week that has infected 45% of the workforce and one-third of the residents, including 19 veterans who died, according to recent state data.
An outbreak is not over until 28 days (representing two incubation periods of 14 days) have elapsed without any new cases.
At the Vineland Veterans Memorial Home, an outbreak began on April 27 and has surged in recent weeks, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. So far there have been 71 Vineland residents — about 30% of the population — and 91 employees infected, and one death of a resident, according to the state Department of Health’s website.
The third veterans home, in Paramus, has been the least affected by an outbreak that began there on April 11. So far, seven residents and 71 of employees have contracted COVID-19 in the latest wave, according to state data.
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