The Simon Law Firm, P.C., St. Louis
“Helping a person who needs somebody to fight for them. That’s why I get up in the morning,” says Tim Cronin. “That’s why I go to work.” In Harned v. Spurlock, Cronin and co-counsel Johnny M. Simon — assisted by Elizabeth McNulty — had the opportunity to fight for their client and ultimately for how mental health patients should be treated in Missouri.
In 2016, Cronin and Simon met with Katherine Harned and then worked up her case as co-leads. They knew that the case would be challenging because of the mental health issues involved. Cronin has more than 12 years of experience as a personal injury trial attorney. Simon joined the firm in 2015. McNulty joined them in the case as a law clerk in 2017, and then as an attorney in 2019 when she covered some depositions and worked on the appeal brief.
“The facts of this case are horrific and very upsetting,” McNulty says. The plaintiff attempted to commit suicide by dousing herself in hairspray and setting herself on fire. This resulted in severe third-degree burns to 42 percent of her body, including her face, neck, torso, arms, and legs. She survived the ordeal and underwent four skin graft surgeries and nearly two dozen laser surgeries.
Harned had a history of mental illness and hospital admissions for suicidal ideation. In fact, as a Medicaid patient, she saw the defendant, a consulting psychologist, after she attempted suicide by overdosing on prescribed anti-depressant and pain medication. After his evaluation, he decided plaintiff was doing well and that she could be safely discharged to her mother’s care and follow-up outpatient care. The fire incident happened 14 days later.
“There were people who were supposed to be looking out for Katherine when she was in a vulnerable state, and they did not,” Cronin says. “When we took this case, we recognized that there is a significant problem in our country with how we treat and take care of people with mental health problems. We were troubled with the way Katherine had slipped through the cracks.”
Cronin, Simon and McNulty underscore that a standard of care exists in Missouri for treatment of mental health patients who are at risk for injuring themselves. Care and thought must be given for how to treat those patients. When it is not, providers can be held liable for the consequences.
“In presenting our case at trial, we had to admit that the plaintiff lit herself on fire,” says Simon. “We had to understand the case so we could empanel a jury that understands the case. I’m proud that our client had the strength and fortitude to see it all the way through. She could have quit at any time.”
“We had to select a jury that could get over any kind of struggle they may have had in potentially awarding money to someone who was acknowledging that they intentionally tried to hurt themselves,” Cronin adds.
At no time was there an offer of settlement from the defense team or a chance of settling the case.
Following the closing argument, the jury deliberated for seven hours. “They came back, and they were exhausted,” Simon recalls. “Nine had voted in our favor, and the other three were in tears.”
The jury verdict was upheld on appeal. “The court’s opinion helps to provide more clarification about when the higher of the two economic damages caps can apply in these cases,” Cronin says. “It puts the message out there that healthcare providers need to make sure they’re doing what’s in the best interest of a patient who is vulnerable, struggling with mental health issues and threatening to do harm to themselves.”
“I hope this opens the eyes of attorneys around the country that these cases can be won,” says Simon. “Suicide medical malpractice cases are very tough cases. I also hope that the standard of care for mental health patients will increase and that psychiatrists will think twice when they see patients.”
“Getting justice for Katherine is what I’m most proud of,” McNulty says. “Knowing she felt seen and heard by a jury of her peers was so important. I will never forget this case.”