Norfolk police recruit’s death suit hinges on autopsy

By Patrick Wilson, The Virginian-Pilot – 8/3/2013

A medical examiner’s report says blows to the head of police recruit John Kohn cannot be ruled out as contributing to his death.

That opinion is at the heart of an appeal pending before the Supreme Court of Virginia in his widow’s civil lawsuit against police.

Circuit Judge Mary Jane Hall sided with the city in a May 16 order in Patricia Kohn’s wrongful death lawsuit. The judge ruled that the lawsuit, which alleged “repeated, violent blows to the head” killed the recruit, couldn’t move forward under the Virginia Workers Compensation Act because it was an injury caused by accident.

Appellate lawyer Steve Emmert filed an appeal July 23 on behalf of Patricia Kohn saying a jury should decide that:

“Where a genuine dispute exists as to the events that caused the death, the Constitution commands that the decisionmaker must be a jury.”

John Kohn, who was 40, was hospitalized on Dec. 9, 2010, after being injured at the police training academy on Military Highway. Police records showed he had been hit a number of times in the head during defensive-tactics drills and collided head-to-head with another recruit during training.

Kohn was on the ground being punched by an instructor when he blacked out. He never recovered and died on Dec. 18, 2010.

The department made changes in training to improve safety, including a ban on deliberate head punches.

The cause of death was listed as blunt-force closed-head trauma.

According to the autopsy report by Dr. Jeffery Gofton, “the head to head collision may have played a significant role… but other blows to the head prior to this event cannot be excluded as contributing to his terminal head injury.”

The appeal cites case law in arguing that injuries resulting from repetitive trauma are not considered accidental – as Kohn’s injuries were deemed in Hall’s decision. Because the medical examiner couldn’t rule out head blows as contributing to his death, the appeal argues, it’s possible that Kohn died of multiple traumas and a jury should make that determination.

Emmert said oral arguments will likely take place in October or December.

The defendants are former Chief Bruce P. Marquis, former Senior Assistant Chief Sharon Chamberlin, and Leldon Sapp, Stephen Bailey, Michael Reardon and Laura Tessier, who were training officers for Kohn’s class.

The autopsy report, which had been referenced only in court records, was made public this week.

Emmert had filed it in Circuit Court, and although it was not sealed, Judge Hall initially restricted it from public access. On Thursday, she scheduled a closed hearing by telephone about her desire to seal it.

D. Stan Barnhill, a Roanoke lawyer representing The Virginian-Pilot, filed a motion saying Hall’s restriction of the document violated state statute and the U.S. Constitution.

Circuit Court Clerk George E. Schaefer said late Thursday afternoon that Hall had changed her mind, and she gave The Pilot access to the report.