Civil damages cap may discourage Holyoke families from taking Massachusetts to court

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — At least 76 people at the Holyoke Veterans’ Home died from COVID-19 complications, according to a devastating, independent report released by state officials Wednesday.

Attorney Steve Schafer thinks 76 families have a pretty strong medical malpractice case against the Commonwealth.

“This is a case of gross negligence,” Schafer said.

Schafer, a Framingham personal injury attorney with 38 years of experience, reviewed the 174-page report and described the allegations in Holyoke as “abominable nursing home negligence.”

“It seems like every rule that applies to infectious disease control was broken at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and there’s just no excuse for that,” Schafer said.

But Schafer said there is a legal roadblock—known as a state tort claims act-- that will discourage families from taking the Commonwealth to court.

In cases of “negligent or wrongful act of omission,” Massachusetts law states public employers cannot be liable for punitive damages “for any amount in excess of $100,000.”


Schafer said that amount simply isn’t worth the legal fees and years it will take to reach a judgement.

“[The cap] makes those cases very difficult to justify financially,” he said.

David Hoey, a North Reading attorney who specializes in nursing home negligence, said the law needs to change.

“This report is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hoey said.

“This is the time in which the legislature or the governor need to remove those caps, so families like this and those workers can get true compensation for those losses,” he said.

In addition to the punitive damages cap, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill early in the pandemic giving nursing homes immunity from civil liability, except in cases of gross negligence.

MORE: Immunity law leaves Mass. families ‘pushing 1,000 lb boulder’ to get justice for loved ones who died after getting COVID-19 at nursing homes

Schafer hopes the Holyoke disaster leads to positive changes.

“If [the case] helps to illustrate to our legislators and to the governor…the inequities and the roadblocks we have in Massachusetts for patients who have been harmed by medical malpractice, there’s something positive that comes out of it,” Schafer said.

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