St. Charles County jurors determined that a mental health professional was not liable after a man murdered his family within hours of his last therapy session.
Thomas Comer killed his wife Carole and two adult children, Rebecca Kelleher and John Comer, before turning the gun on himself. The incident in July 2016 occurred shortly after all four had attended Thomas Comer’s session with psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Mattingly.
Surviving family members alleged the doctor committed malpractice by failing to diagnose or treat the “probable psychotic components” of Comer’s illness.
“The allegations basically were that Dr. Mattingly missed something in the office visit or should have seen something that would have led him to either hospitalize the patient or otherwise conclude that he was a risk of harm to himself and others and should have taken some actions,” said Tad Eckenrode of Eckenrode-Maupin, who defended Mattingly.
Much of the case centered on a conflict regarding what occurred during the final session. Eckenrode said Mattingly’s records indicated that he explored whether the patient had suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Gary Burger of Burger Law, who represented three daughters and one grandson of Thomas Comer, presented a different narrative, based on testimony from the plaintiffs, who spoke with Rebecca Kelleher about the meeting before she was killed. Burger said Kelleher wrote a letter and handwritten note to Mattingly detailing extreme concerns about her father’s hallucinations, delusions and thoughts of self-harm. She told her siblings that those concerns went unaddressed.
“She said he never assessed him for suicide, never made an inquiry about the letter, didn’t talk about any of the stuff we went to talk about,” Burger said. “She was very disappointed and upset.”
The testimony was admitted under a “dead man’s” exception to the hearsay rules.
“Ultimately, we argued that the contemporaneous records were accurate, and ultimately the jury, after hearing the evidence, must have concluded that they were more accurate than the accounts of what the family had contended had happened,” Eckenrode said.
Burger told the jury that the defendant fell below the standard of care by not taking the time and effort necessary to properly assess his patient. Both sides presented respected experts in psychiatry.
“Our main contention was that suicide itself is very unpredictable, and there was just no evidence that would have suggested this to anybody,” said Eckenrode.
In closing arguments, the plaintiffs sought damages of $2 million to 3 million for each death, for a total of $8 million to $12 million, Eckenrode said. The jury ultimately granted no fault to any party. Burger said he believed the case was well-tried and he respected the verdict of the jurors, whom he noted were attentive to the facts. No appeal is planned.
The attorneys were both complimentary of one another in the matter.
“It was a hard case for the jury and for us,” Burger said.
Venue: St. Charles County Circuit Court
Case Number/Date: 1711-CC00119/Dec. 4, 2018
Judge: Ted House
Plaintiffs’ Experts: James Cavanaugh, Chicago (psychiatry)
Defendants’ Experts: Douglas Jacobs, Boston (psychiatry)
First Pretrial Demand: $2.85 million, based on four noneconomic caps for the four deaths involved
Last Pretrial Demand: $1 million
Last Pretrial Offer: $0
Caption: Amy Comer, Molly Heppe, Linda Campbell and Mikah Kelleher v. Dr. Greg Mattingly and St. Charles Psychiatric
Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Gary Burger and Genavieve Fikes, Burger Law, St. Louis
Defendants’ Attorneys: J. Thaddeus Eckenrode and Lisa Howe, Eckenrode-Maupin, St. Louis