UVA Lawyers Win National Law Journal Recognition:
Case Featured on 48 Hours
• Joseph W. Ryan, Jr. ’78 and Patricia A. Screen ’85
We knew it would be a high-profile case. We were asked to defend the out-patient psychotherapist of a 21-year-old Ohio man who murdered a 15 year-old “family friend” with whom he had become obsessed. We did not, however, expect quite so many camera crews in the courtroom (about five at any given time). And we certainly did not expect some of them to be from 48 Hours and Court TV. Although all of the events took place in Ohio, there were a surprising number of Virginia connections between the participants in this trial and the University that we detail below.
All the publicity proved a mixed blessing, but in the end we were gratified that the TV cameras were there to record the unanimous verdict in favor of our client, Raina Krell, M.S. The surprises were not over, however. A final one came when we learned that our case had been selected as the most impressive civil defense verdict for 2002 by the National Law Journal. After this unexpected recognition, the case was a featured segment on CBS’s 48 Hours in April 2003 in a piece called “To Catch a Stalker.”
We had the privilege of defending Ms. Krell, a therapist who was working toward her Ph.D. in psychology and counseling out-patient clients under the supervision of a Ph.D. clinical psychologist, in a trial in Cleveland, Ohio in October 2002. The case presented complex and often very emotional issues. Penny Chang was only 15 when her assailant, a 21-yearold man named Scott Strothers, stalked and killed her. Strothers watched for Penny at her school bus stop, then shot her repeatedly in the back, in broad daylight in front of the Shaker Heights, Ohio, police station. In the months leading up to the murder, Strothers had been arrested for vandalizing Penny’s house, and then admitted for five-and-a-half weeks as a voluntary in-patient in the Psychiatry Ward of the Cleveland Clinic. Upon his release, he was treated on an outpatient basis by Krell. Krell saw Strothers over a three-and-a-half month period, and last counseled him four days before the murder. Penny’s father filed a $20 million wrongful death suit alleging that the Clinic and Krell had been negligent in their treatment of Strothers, and had failed to warn the Changs of his homicidal tendencies.
The claims against Krell and the Clinic were based on the seminal case addressing therapist negligence and the duty to warn — Tarasoff v. Regents University of Cal., 917 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P. 2d 334 (Cal. 1976). The Tarasoff Court held that, once a therapist determines, or reasonably should determine, that a patient poses a serious threat of violence to others, the therapist owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim. The “Tarasoff” doctrine, with certain modifications, has been adopted by courts in Ohio.
In our case, the threats had come in the form of horrifyingly violent e-mails from Strothers to the Chang family weeks before the murder, e-mails which the family received but claimed they had not read. Krell knew nothing about those threatening communications. Indeed, Strothers never revealed any intent to harm the Changs to Krell during their 16 therapy sessions. Although depressed, Strothers even seemed to be improving.
Part of our trial strategy included suggesting that the Changs bore some responsibility for their daughter’s tragic death because the family failed to report the threatening e-mails to the police. The jury needed to hear this, but presenting the information delicately was a challenge. In the end we trusted that the jury would understand why we had to do this and would not allow their (understandable) sympathy for the Changs to prevent them from reaching a just verdict.
Another concern we had was that the Cleveland Clinic, which provided therapy during a five-and-a-half week stay before releasing Strothers to Krell’s care, would try to shift the focus to Krell, who had counseled him a mere four days before the murder. (Although Strothers had made earlier death threats against the family, the Clinic had determined Strothers was not a threat to the Changs at discharge.) We were delighted that the Clinic, a nationally recognized medical facility, did not try to blame Krell.
The Changs’ attorney tried to use Krell’s youth and relative lack of experience against her, referring to her as a “student therapist” and portraying her as being “in over her head.” But her testimony demonstrated her professional care and her capable treatment of Strothers.
Before the verdict was read, we were reasonably confident that the jury would find in Krell’s favor. When the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Krell and the Clinic, a tearful Krell was captured by a Plain Dealer photographer whose 5 x 7 photograph with Patty by her side appeared on the front page of the Cleveland newspaper. Needless to say, we were ecstatic with the verdict.
There were a surprising number of University of Virginia connections to this trial. We selected the Law School’s Dr. John Monahan as our forensic psychology expert. Dr. Monahan testified about the difficulty of predicting long range violent behavior, and was the most persuasive expert who took the stand at trial. Patty had taken Dr. Monahan’s course, Social Science and the Law, with her husband, Don (GSAS ’81, ’83; Law ’87) while at the Law School. In fact, Don originally recommended Dr. Monahan as an expert witness.
And Dr. Ellen Casper, who owned the counseling center where Krell worked at the time and who testified at the trial, obtained her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University in 1981. Assisting Joe and Patty during the trial was Carmen Morris Twyman (CLAS ’95), an Associate with the Firm.
Our greatest reassurance came each day as we climbed the marble steps to the ancient Common Pleas Courtroom. Just at the top of the steps rose a statute of Mr. Jefferson, as if he were watching to see that justice prevailed. We knew that our trial was in good hands.
As of the writing of this article, Patty and Joe won the appeal filed by the Changs, again unanimously. Joe and Patty are litigation partners with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP. Patty works in the firm’s Cleveland, Ohio, office, and Joe is in its Columbus office. In addition to handling professional negligence matters, both Joe and Patty work on complex commercial and class action litigation, product liability, and coverage matters. Joe resides in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Mary Pat, a 1976 graduate of the College. Their daughter Caitlin is a 1999 graduate of the College (and lived on the Lawn during her fourth year), and his son Joby is scheduled to graduate from the Law School in 2005. Patty resides in Westlake, Ohio, with her husband Don (GSAS ’81, ’83; Law ’87) and their three children, Cameron, Christopher, and Jamie, all aspiring UVA graduates.