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Lawsuits blame Western Psych shooter's mother for downplaying son's illness

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Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Attorneys who sued the mother of a mentally ill gunman who killed one employee and wounded five other people at Western Psychiatric Clinic & Institute may have their sights on the wrong target, civil attorneys said Friday.

“Generally, parents are not responsible for the choices of their children, regardless of age,” said Jon Perry, an attorney at the Downtown law firm Rosen, Louik & Perry.

John Shick, 30, of Oakland walked into Western Psych armed with two handguns on March 8, 2012, and opened fire, killing Michael Schaab, 25, of Regent Square and wounding five. Police shot and killed Shick.

In the 19 months since, victims or their families filed three lawsuits in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and one notice of intent to sue.

All the actions name Shick's mother, Susan Shick, as a defendant. Three claim she failed or refused to follow advice to treat his schizophrenia and knew about his mental illnesses and violent tendencies, but downplayed those concerns when she spoke to doctors and a UPMC mental health crisis unit. It's unclear why Larry Shick, the shooter's father, is not named.

“That's going to be our theory as well,” Michael O'Day, the Schaab family attorney, told The Associated Press on Friday, a day after he filed notice of intent to file a lawsuit against Susan Shick.

Susan Shick lives aboard a yacht and could not be reached. Her attorneys, Thomas P. Birris, Joseph V. Lesinski and Stuart Stostmann, did not return calls.

Perry said there are exceptions to the rule that parents are not responsible for the choices their children make, as when a parent knows of their child's dangerous activities and fails to act.

“If my son drinks every night and takes the car to go to Burger King drunk, and I know that and I leave the car keys in the house and I enable him to go, I can be held responsible,” he said. “But when you have a guy who goes into Western Psych and his mother lives 1,000 miles away and he's an adult, she has no responsibility. Unless he called her up and said, ‘Mom, I have a gun, and I'm going to Western Psych,' she may have an obligation to call. Beyond something like that, I can't imagine why they're bringing her into this.”

Susan Shick and her husband were sailing in the Caribbean at the time of the shooting.

“I'm not going to debate the merits of the case,” said Mark Homyak, the attorney representing Katherine Leight, a Western Psych receptionist who was wounded in the rampage. “I'm very confident that the case was well-brought, well-founded on Pennsylvania law and that we will succeed.”

Lawsuits naming the parents of gunmen in mass shootings are rare, but not unheard of, attorneys said.

Andrejs and Inese Baumhammers, of Mt. Lebanon paid $130,000 to each of the six families of their son's victims nine years after Richard S. Baumhammers went on a racially charged killing spree in early 2000.

The families claimed Baumhammers' parents knew their son, who lived with them, was likely to harm others if he wasn't controlled, that they failed to take possession of the .38-caliber handgun he used to kill his victims and did not notify police or their son's mental health care providers that he had a gun.

In a June 2012 posting to her website, The Log of Moira, Susan Shick wrote that she could not compel their son to go to doctor's appointments or take his medications. She wrote that she and her husband gave their son support to live independently but could not assuage his feelings of alienation.

Prosecutors reviewed the shooting and concluded nobody with the clinic, UPMC or others who had contact with Shick bore criminal responsibility for not preventing the rampage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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