Tale of Woe II: Deceased VQR editor's family files $10 million lawsuit
The family of former Virginia Quarterly Review managing editor Kevin Morrissey, who took his own life two years ago following documented tensions at the magazine, including alleged psychological abuse from former editor Ted Genoways, has filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the University of Virginia, former UVA President John Casteen, Genoways, and two human resources employees.
The suit, filed in Henrico Circuit Court on July 25, seeks damages for "intentional infliction of emotional distress by Genoways," and "gross neglect" on the part of UVA, Casteen, and the HR employees.
"As a direct and proximate result of the emotional distress caused by Genoways, Morrissey was not of sound mind when he took his own life on July 30," the complaint states.
The 27-page complaint, filed by the Richmond law firm Hairfield Morton, details events leading up to the July 30, 2010 suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot wound beside the old Coal Tower property at the end of Water Street, using a series of emails between Morrissey, VQR staff, and officials in HR and the President's office.
Much of this was detailed extensively in the Hook, including a story in January this year that revealed Morrissey's attempts to deal with alleged abuse from Genoways, but the complaint also includes communications not previously published.
For instance, it is revealed that former VQR web editor Waldo Jaquith emailed Casteen's chief of staff Nancy Rivers on July 30, before he knew of Morrissey's death, with concerns about Genoways' behavior. According to the complaint, Genoways had been warned by the President's office not to retaliate for complaints that his staff had made against him, but an allegedly abusive email interaction with one employee that morning prompted the email from Jaquith.
"If anything escalates into a situation where their safety is being threatened, please call the police immediately," Rivers relpies, "even if the threat is given over the phone… leave the office if needed."
In addition to Casteen, the suit also names Angelee Godbold, UVA Human Resources Consultant Manager, and Alan S. Cohn, former director of Faculty and Staff Employee Relations.
The suit alleges "gross negligence" on the part of Casteen, Genoways' only superior, who had allegedly been made aware of Genoways' behavior toward his staff years earlier. Genoways, the complaint alleges, was allowed to avoid taking mandatory classes for managers, and repeatedly violated UVA policy regarding employee disciplinary action. Additionally, a UVA investigation revealed that Genoways had misused VQR funds. And questions still remain about his hiring of Alana Levinson-Labrosse, a young intern and major UVA donor, without a formal search.
On July 23, the complaint alleges, Godbold told VQR staff member Molly Minturn that VQR was treated with "kid gloves" and was "the president's baby," and then went on to describe the VQR office as "dysfunctional and poorly managed." Both Cohn and Godbold, the suit alleges, were made aware, on two separate occasions days before Morrissey's death, that he was under tremendous stress and might be suicidal.
In effect, the suit alleges that Godbold, Cohn, Casteen, and senior members of the President's office were made aware of Genoways' alleged problematic behavior, and Morrissey's troubling mental state, but "failed to intervene."
UVA spokesperson Carol Wood declined to comment on the lawsuit, but according to a source, an email was sent out on Monday, July 30 to certain employees advising them not to delete any emails associated with the VQR.
As Hook legal analyst David Heilberg points out, the last time the Virginia Supreme Court made any substantive pronouncements concerning the "intentional infliction of emotional distress" claim, it was about a case right here in Charlottesville.
Back in 1996, the wife of a St. Anne's-Belfield School baseball coach began receiving anonymous letters from someone claiming her husband was having an affair. As it so happens, local best-selling author John Grisham, who had a child at St. Anne's and was a friend of the baseball coach and his wife, also received an anonymous letter. Grisham, wanting to get to the bottom of it, obtained handwriting samples of the person they suspected of writing the letters, and a handwriting expert determined that the woman they had targeted could have written the letters. Grisham and company took their case to the Commonwealth's Attorney, and a detective investigated the woman, but no charges were filled.
The woman then filed a lawsuit, claiming "intentional infliction of emotional distress" caused by the investigation. At the Circuit Court level, the case was thrown out. But on appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed that decision and allowed the woman to move forward with her lawsuit.
"It's not that they believed her allegation to be true," says Heilberg, "but that the woman could seek damages on those grounds."
That case never went to trial, leading Heilberg to offer an educated guess that was settled privately out of court.
For the suit brought forward by Morrissey's family, this precedent could be important. In fact, Heilberg suspects their case will be allowed to move forward because of it.
Still, he points out that there are enormous challenges for the Morrissey family. One big difference is that there is not a living individual claiming "infliction of emotional distress." Instead, such claims are being made on the behalf of a deceased person, someone who took his won life, based largely on on circumstantial evidence. The fact that Morrissey had a history of depression could be an obstacle as well, as it shows a preexisting condition. While that doesn't mean the family doesn't have a claim, says Heilberg, it could effect the measure of the damages.
Heilberg also believes that there is not a strong case against Godbold and Cohn, as they were simply trying to do their jobs within the confines of a situation that may have been dysfunctional at its root.
Finally, the family will have to prove that Genoways, the main instigator of the alleged abuse, was acting as an agent of UVA and/or President Casteen. On his own, Genoways is what's called "collection proof," meaning its unlikely that he would be able to make a $10 million payout. With the heavily insured University, however, its a different story.
"UVA has the deep pockets," says Heilberg.
Like the Grisham suit, Heilberg suspects this one likely won't make it to trial, as neither party would likely want the tragedy re-played in court.
The Morrissey family declined to comment on the suit, and Casteen could not be reached for comment.
The suit also asks for $350,000 in punitive damages, together with the cost of attorney's fees, and demands a trial by jury.
–developing story; will be updated–