Bernie Cantorna – TLC 94 Grad. Disclaimer: One addition to the story is the insurance company pulled the defense six months prior to trial because the defendant would not consent to settle. The doctor represented himself and Eileen had to face her accuser directly in court. The congratulations go to her, not me.
Maren Chaloupka – TLC ’99 Grad
I am in a phase of life where it feels kind of uncomfortable to praise people for obtaining sizeable money verdicts. I worry about contributing to any sense that a Warrior’s worth to our community is measured by how much money he or she makes (whether by verdicts or by settlements). I worry that the verdicts can be reported in a way that bolsters the lawyer’s ego by the size of the verdict. And yet I don’t have any hesitation in reporting the verdict that a State College, Pennsylvania jury today returned in favor of Bernie Cantorna’s client Eileen.
Let me explain.
Bernie is not one of our community’s “big money” guys. He has a general litigation practice that includes everything from personal injury to criminal defense to domestic relations work. What has always impressed me about Bernie is his focus on service – – really listening to the client and really trying to provide what the client wants and needs, whether it is a modification to a custody agreement or compensation for a wrongful death. His decision to maintain a service-centered practice has led Bernie into some interesting scenarios that can be more emotionally rewarding than they are financially rewarding. (The Grad II 2011 class learned of Bernie’s encounter with the Amish community, in which he settled a case for the wrongful death of a baby with a coterie of Old Order Amish, no insurers in sight, in a manner that brought healing to his client while in an amount adequate to show respect for her loss.)
In 2008, a woman named Eileen told Bernie a horrific story of emotional and physical torture perpetrated by her psychologist, Dr. Julian Metter. She had come to Dr. Metter for counseling, as a patient with a complicated history and some serious psychologic diagnoses. Rather than treat her, Dr. Metter used her as a guinea pig for an ongoing study (performed only by himself, not affiliated with any university or college) that involved gassing the patient with carbon dioxide until she was in an altered state of consciousness, and then implanting false “memories” of abuse in her mind that would stay with her when she returned to normal consciousness.
Eileen consented to the CO2 treatments (a fact the defense liked), even as her autonomic reaction was to struggle and fight physically against Dr. Metter while he held her down and gassed her. Dr. Metter videotaped the treatments – – hours and hours and hours of video footage that would give any viewer a seriously crawly, disgusted feeling. She returned to Dr. Metter for years, while the “memories” Dr. Metter “drew out” from her (by implanting them in her mind) grew increasingly bizarre and fantasiacal. Dr. Metter convinced Eileen that she had been sexually assaulted in a satanic cult that murdered babies. He convinced her that her family of origin had abused and tortured her (which was false), so that she would sever her relationship with her parents and siblings. Dr. Metter enlisted Eileen’s husband in these “treatments,” allowing him to run the video camera while Dr. Metter held Eileen down as she struggled to escape the gas.
And yet, she returned … again and again, for years, until she finally broke free, and met Bernie. By that time, Eileen was tremendously damaged. To say she had trust issues is akin to saying that Cordova, Alaska had snow issues this winter. She scarcely trusted Bernie enough to let him try to help her.
Thus began 3 1/2 years of extremely careful, extremely sensitive work by Bernie. There was a contrib defense, which was ugly and had to be dealt with. There was a damages defense – – i.e., “she was already effed up to begin with, so how can you say she’s any worse?” Even hearing of these defenses was devastating to Eileen, who blamed herself to begin with.
Eileen felt utterly, grindingly worthless in a way that very few of us can ever understand. She didn’t think this case had any hope of a good outcome. She was terrified of ever seeing Dr. Metter again, much less spending a week in the same courtroom with him. She was ashamed that she hadn’t broken away from Dr. Metter earlier. She didn’t trust that Bernie could get her through this.
And Dr. Metter knew this, and took advantage of the broken creature he had created throughout the litigation. The defense filed motions that were personal attacks on Eileen, including a counterclaim for defamation. Each report of a new motion by Bernie was a knife in Eileen’s gut. She wanted to give up again and again, out of fear and shame and humiliation and the sense that a jury would just find that she was worthless anyway.
Eileen had many days when she would have given up. Her fragility and emotionality made settlement negotiations impracticable (as did Dr. Metter’s insanity). Many times over 3 1/2 years, Bernie had to assure Eileen that she deserved to tell her story; and that her history did not make her such “damaged goods” that she was worthless. He had to assure Eileen that he would protect her from Dr. Metter.
The case finally came to trial this week. Bernie tried it solo. For most of the trial, he didn’t even have Eileen at his side – – he obtained an order from the court excusing Eileen except when she testified, so that she would not have to be subjected to and intimidated by Dr. Metter’s presence. Bernie kept Eileen together through her direct examination, gave her the confidence to survive cross-examination and, on the days when she didn’t come to trial, he talked her off of the emotional ledge and encouraged her to stick it out to the end … which was today.
I am not as good of a person as Bernie is. I tend to cringe when a prospective client says that he wants to go to trial “on principle.” Usually “on principle” means that I put a load of time and money into a loser case to satisfy some personality disorder on the client’s part.
But Eileen was not the one who wanted to try this case on principle. It was Bernie – – who saw how completely Dr. Metter had destroyed a fragile woman who had come to him for help. It was Bernie who saw a principle worth fighting for, in exposing Dr. Metter for the monster that he is. It was Bernie who saw a principle worth fighting for, to show his client Eileen that she did have worth as a human being, that her life was not disposable and that she was not just a guinea pig for a mad scientist to torture.
Bernie fought for those principles and, today, had the incomparable privilege of telling Eileen that the jury affirmed that she did have worth … $16.5 million of worth.
Who knows if this verdict will be collectable – – Dr. Metter had insurance, but not $16.5 million worth, and he was so irascible that his insurer may refuse to pay even what coverage he had.
But a big payday wasn’t the reason Bernie tried this case. Bernie isn’t a money-motivated guy (he drives a minivan). Nor is Bernie an ego-motivated guy – – he knows who he is, regardless of what one jury or another may say in one trial or another.
What Bernie is, is service-motivated. He was motivated to serve this despairing, damaged client by restoring her ability to trust; by showing her that she mattered; and by giving her a jury’s affirmation that she deserved healing and peace.
That’s what the verdict means. Not a fancy car or a Rolex, and not ego-stroking, but evidence of Bernie’s persistence, loyalty and commitment to a client who thought she didn’t deserve it.