Suicide suit in jury’s hands

By CHRISTOPHER BOBBY

Tribune Chronicle

WARREN – Without suggesting any specific amount of damages being sought, attorney Brian Kopp challenged three men and five women to perform their duty as jurors, the same way Michael Ecker performed his duty as a soldier.

”We never had a chance to thank him for his service, though,” Kopp said Thursday in closing arguments in a medical malpractice-wrongful death trial. Ecker’s family is suing two Champion doctors on claims that they failed to offer proper care to the 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, who killed himself after putting a gun to his head in front of his father in August of 2009.

Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge Ronald Rice gave the jury final instructions, and they started deliberations about 3 p.m. Friday before being released about 4:30 p.m. with orders to continue deliberations this morning.

”No person here went through what Michael went through,” Kopp said in his closing, detailing the post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries that Ecker suffered as a member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Striker Division.

Ecker was treated at veterans clinics but became upset with his treatment there, complaining that they weren’t managing pain he was suffering in his back and ankle. In January 2009, he started with monthly appointments at the family practice of Dr. Frank G. Veres and his son, Dr. Zachary F. Veres in Champion.

He was only seen eight times before the suicide. Before the shooting, after he fired a warning shot and saluted his father.

Holding up a photo of a uniformed Ecker in front of an American flag, Kopp called it a ”unique” and ”gut-wrenching” case that allowed him to get to know Ecker’s father, Matt, a retired Trumbull County Jail administrator who testified, mother Cheryl and brother Mark, who have watched the trial unfold in the courtroom.

At issue in the case is whether treatment by the doctors, who both testified, breached the standard of care and, if so, was it a proximate cause of the death.

Both doctors testified that Ecker was asked, but showed no signs of being suicidal, as he was questioned each time he had an appointment.

Frank Veres, the elder physician, testified that he had no concerns about Ecker’s mental health during the first visit in January, despite diagnosing Ecker as having depression and renewing a prescription for pain and depression-fighting drugs. Later, he increased the dosage of Valium and another drug was prescribed.

Even though the doctors failed to receive Ecker’s medical records from the Veterans Administration clinic, they said Ecker continued along at a stable rate.

”Nothing that Mr. Ecker or my clients could have done would have prevented this (suicide),” said attorney Thomas Prislipsky, who represents the doctors.

”Their reputation is in front of you,” Prislipsky told the jury. ”VA records wouldn’t have required them to do anything differently. You can’t hold them responsible for something unforseeable.”

Prislipsky offered as proof how Ecker showed no suicidal warning signs, on the day of his death he was preparing for a date with his girlfriend after landing a new job just that week.