This January, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner will depart the governor’s mansion having lost his bid for reelection. In one of his final legislative acts, Governor Rauner actually vetoed a bill that would help the families of veterans receive reasonable financial compensation for the deaths of their loved ones. Fortunately, on November 28, the Democratic controlled legislature overrode the Governor’s veto. Had this veto remained in effect, the compensation these military families would have received would have been limited to $100,000.
At issue was a 1970’s law mandating that any lawsuits brought against the State of Illinois that seek compensation or reimbursement for an injury be brought in the Illinois Court of Claims. The Court of Claims functions separately from our traditional, county level courts and is made up of seven judges appointed by the Governor. Since the law was first enacted in the 1970’s, all damage awards were capped at $100,000 regardless of the extent of the injury, medical expenses or future losses. According to the Chicago Tribune, this $100,000 damages cap was the lowest cap of ANY state in the country.
These compensation limits were highlighted earlier this year following news of a Legionnaires outbreak causing the deaths of 14 veterans living at the Illinois Home for Veterans in Quincy, Illinois. Legionnaires is a deadly, bacterial disease that causes a severe form of pneumonia. The disease inflames the lungs making it difficult to breathe while triggering flu-like symptoms. Legionnaires is especially dangerous in older populations.
Families of these veterans claimed that the State was slow to respond and react to the disease outbreak, which can rapidly spread and infect more individuals unless proper control measures are taken. As the Chicago Tribune notes, the disease is especially potent in water environments and lawsuits filed by the families claimed that the Quincy veterans’ home at first ignored the disease and then failed to “maintain its plumbing system, meet standards and treat its water system to ensure the bacteria didn’t grow and spread.” According to the lawsuits, had proper measures been taken, many of these deaths could have been prevented.
At the time of the outbreak, however, the law was clear. These veterans lived in a state-owned facility and were therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims. Accordingly, no matter how negligent the veteran’s home was, the most the families could recover for the death of a loved one was $100,000. Had these veterans lived in any other type of facility there would not have been a cap. The situation was unfair and unjust.
The legislature set out to change the law. As WGN reported, Democratic Representative Al Riley of Olympia Fields introduced legislation to raise the $100,000 cap to $2,000,000 for any lawsuits brought against the state in the Court of Claims. This proposal passed both the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate only to be vetoed by Governor Rauner who claimed that raising the cap would just cost the state too much money. On November 28, the legislature overrode the Governor’s veto and the law increasing the cap immediately went into effect.
The new law helps not just the families affected by the recent Legionnaires outbreak but now affoards reasonable compensation for death or injury caused by any employee or agency of the State of Illinois. This new limit brings Illinois more in line with neighboring states in terms of availability of just and fair compensation for a wrong.
This change in Illinois law is a good step in protecting the rights of those who are negligently injured. We are hopeful that our new Governor, J.B. Pritzker, will work closely with the legislature and continue pushing for legislation aimed at not only protecting the public at large, but providing fair remedies in all courts of law for those seeking justice.