Dr. No

Dr. Robert Corn's enemies say he'll testify to anything insurance companies want - for a price.

Dr. Robert Corn has been an orthopedic surgeon for 22 years, a success by any measure. He was chief of orthopedics at Huron Hospital and has his own practice in Highland Heights, all of which has given him a most comfortable life. He owns five and a half acres in Gates Mills, where he lives with his family in a half-million-dollar house with five bedrooms, six baths, and four fireplaces.

But while building an impressive career, Corn has also built a notable stable of enemies. That's because Corn has likely earned more than a million dollars from insurers like Allstate, Farmers, and State Farm.

Attorneys charge that Corn is paid to discredit people's claims of injury in court. With the help of judges, they've tried to get the doctor to admit exactly how much insurance companies pay him. They've tried to make him cough up medical records and tax forms. And they accuse him of defying subpoenas and destroying records to avoid revealing his bias.

But those who hire Corn insist his enemies have a darker motive: that juries find Corn so convincing, opposing lawyers, afraid of facing him in court, will do anything to take him down.

John Chapman knew he had a tough case. In 1996, his client, William Greene, pulled over on the Shoreway to pour water into his overheated radiator. A woman rear-ended his Cadillac, and the front bumper clipped Greene in the knee, knocking him over. Greene said his back -- full of metal plates from an earlier injury -- flared up in pain for the first time in a year.

Greene sued to win money from the woman's insurer, Allstate. But Chapman worried Greene's old injuries would complicate the case. And when the lawyer sat down to depose Dr. Robert Corn, whom Allstate had hired to examine Greene, he was even more concerned.

"He looked right into the camera . . . like Ronald Reagan, a sort of telegenic star," says Chapman. Dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope draped around his neck, Corn reminded the lawyer of Dr. Marcus Welby, the kind, reassuring '70s TV character. "I was impressed. I thought I was in trouble."

Corn reasoned that, because of Greene's longstanding back troubles, little of his pain could be blamed on the crash; nor was there evidence that the accident loosened Greene's plates. Records showed Greene was taking medication for his old injury when he suffered the new one. Corn said the accident had simply caused a strain. (The doctor did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

But Chapman already knew of Corn's reputation. So he asked the doctor how much he was being paid to testify. Nine hundred dollars an hour, Corn replied. Later, Chapman watched the jury's reaction when that part of the taped deposition was played at the trial. A nurse on the jury "rolled her eyes, and her jaw dropped," he says.

Chapman also brought in Greene's longtime physician. He testified his patient had been doing well until the accident and insisted the incident had loosened Greene's plates.

It worked. The jury awarded Greene $25,000.

Lisa Levine, a young social worker, injured her knee in 1994 when she collided with a car that ran a light. Afterward, she had trouble walking down stairs, and pain flared up if she sat in one position for too long. Her doctor, Donald Goodfellow, diagnosed her with cartilage damage, a condition called "dashboard knee" because it's often caused by car crashes. The injury would never heal, he concluded.

But after Levine sued, Corn was called in to examine her. "I think that she basically had a bruised knee," he testified. He measured her knees, found an abnormality common in young women, and decreed it the source of her pain.

The jury awarded Levine $100,000. It was a clear sign, says her attorney, that the jury didn't believe Corn.

But insurers don't hire Robert Corn because he's easily discredited. In fact, he's likely helped save them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Information compiled by Jury Verdict Reports, a company that tracks judicial matters, shows that insurers scored clear victories in 22 of 42 Cuyahoga County jury trials where Corn testified and the plaintiff's injuries were in dispute. In those 22 cases, the jury either awarded no damages or less money than insurers offered before trial.

The threat of Corn's testimony can also drive the injured to settle. Take the case of Cleveland plumber Robert Holtz, whom Corn examined in 1998, long after a crash.

"On my way to work, a young girl hit my car," Holtz says. "My back was twisted. My knee hit the dash." It was the second time he hurt his knee. Once, while working at a nursing home, he tore it while trying to pick up a resident. The crash tore the same cartilage, he says; both injuries required surgery.

So he sued the woman who hit him. Progressive, her insurer, sent him to Corn. "He asked a couple questions, and that's it," Holtz says. "He didn't even touch me." But Corn read the medical records and compiled a report that infuriated Holtz's lawyers. "Basically, he was calling me a liar, saying nothing was wrong with me."

Corn noted that Holtz never mentioned knee pain at the emergency room. At worst, the accident might have worsened his old problem, Corn argued. Holtz's attorneys decided not to take the doctor on in court and settled.

Lawyer Joe Coticchia says it's no coincidence that Corn blames so many injuries on preexisting conditions. He's been chasing the doctor through the courts for three years, ever since he disagreed with Corn's diagnosis of a client.

In 1998, Coticchia subpoenaed every insurance medical exam Corn had on file. "Over a hundred reports say the same thing," he asserts. Whenever there's a soft-tissue injury -- whiplash, sprains, and strains, which don't show up on X-rays and are difficult to prove to a jury -- Coticchia says Corn will describe it as a "subjective injury from which the patient has objectively recovered." But if there's proof of an injury, the doctor will usually blame it on an earlier condition. The pattern shows that Corn is "trying to portray the patient as someone who's dishonest, trying to get money for nothing," Coticchia charges.

At a hearing in 1998, he tried to get Corn to agree that in 104 exams, the doctor hadn't found one permanent injury caused by an accident.

"I'm sure they are probably similar in that way," Corn replied.

Coticchia asked if Corn disagreed with the injured person's doctors in every exam.

"Well, I don't know if I disagreed with them in total, but I may have disagreed at least partially."

Lawyers have tried to get Corn to admit how much money he makes from insurers per year. He won't say, and he claims he doesn't keep track.

But in depositions, Corn admits to making $900 to $1,700 per exam and charging $900 an hour to testify. In 1997, he did about two exams a week for insurance companies or government agencies investigating worker's comp and injury claims. He also testified in about two depositions a week, which generally last two hours. He has said he works 37 to 38 weeks a year; this would place Corn's yearly income from insurance companies and state agencies alone between $200,000 and $266,000.

David Paris, president of the Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys, helps compile thick files on Corn and other doctors he calls "darlings of the defense industry." But, he adds, "I happen to like Bob Corn. I think he's a nice guy and a good physician." Clients tell Paris the doctor treats them well and has a kindly bedside manner. "My personal view is that Bob Corn and other doctors who do this are not dishonest individuals."

Two doctors can look at the same patient and make different diagnoses, Paris says. But insurers usually turn to more skeptical doctors. "Their glass may be half-empty."

Paris says he once confronted Corn with reports in which he'd diagnosed his own patients with permanent injuries, then compared them to similar cases in which Corn, working for insurers, said people weren't permanently injured. Corn simply replied that each case is different.

It's attorney Terry Kenneally's job to be skeptical. When insurers think someone is exaggerating injuries for money or blaming a recent accident for an old injury, they ask Kenneally to prove it in court.

So, about a half-dozen times a year, he calls on Robert Corn.

Kenneally was once suspicious of a man who claimed his shoulder was hurt in an accident. The crash hadn't caused much damage, which left the lawyer wondering how it could have torn the man's rotator cuff. But when Kenneally sent the man to Corn, the doctor deemed the injury real and said it was caused by the accident. The insurer settled the case.

"I think he calls it like he sees it," Kenneally says. He believes the attacks on Corn are just a game lawyers play. They know Corn is an effective witness -- experienced, prepared, attractive, articulate -- so his testimony can translate into less money for their clients. "They're looking for any kind of angle that can discredit him," Kenneally says.

Moreover, insurance doctors can look biased simply because they're hired to examine the most disputed injuries, like those involving soft tissue or preexisting conditions. "What you're not seeing is all the cases when both sides agree there was an injury," says Marilyn Damelio, a Nationwide Insurance lawyer in Cleveland.

Corn once defended himself in court when Coticchia asked why insurers hire him so often. "Because I'm a fair, honest examiner who tells it like it is," he replied, noting that his reputation in the medical community is important to him. "I wouldn't jeopardize that for anything."

In a deposition, Corn told Coticchia he does insurance exams because he enjoys investigating cases. "It is a way of making money, but I feel that I have a duty, since I don't know many other doctors that would submit to this kind of baloney that you've given me."

Corn has testified he does find injuries that are more serious than the insurer suspected. When he does, he warns the lawyers and asks if they want a report. Frequently, they do.

Contrary to suspicions, insurance lawyers also say they want honest doctors. "Many times they support the plaintiff's doctor's perspective, and then we know where [we] stand," says Damelio.

Corn is hardly the only doctor willing to testify as a defense expert. "What I think singled him out was, he probably did it more skillfully than a lot of other people," says attorney Bill Wuliger.

And insurance lawyers contend the other side has its favorite experts, too. They see certain doctors testify for plaintiffs over and over again, and they can easily predict what they'll say. For example, some lawyers have repeatedly pried into the business practices of the Cleveland Therapy Center as aggressively as their rivals have gone after Corn. One letter the Therapy Center sent to law firms promised to assist lawyers in making larger claims for medical treatment and offered to put them on the center's ticket list for sporting events, according to a court document.

But is Corn completely neutral? When pressed, Kenneally admits the doctor generally takes a critical look at injuries.

"A majority of the time, Dr. Corn probably finds that either the injuries are not as severe as the plaintiffs would like you to believe, or that there is no proximate cause between the injury and the accident . . . He may look with more of a jaundiced eye than some other doctors might."

Three years ago, Bill Wuliger went to Corn's office and grilled him in front of a camera. He was working from a well-worn script. Corn's reputation had grown so much that lawyers taking his deposition didn't just ask about their clients' injuries. They wanted to know how much money the doctor made, how many insurance exams he'd done, who he did them for, and how his office kept records.

Wuliger was surprised to find Corn less combative and more candid than he'd been with other lawyers. After the deposition, Corn asked Wuliger for a private word in his office.

"He took me aside," Wuliger recalls. "There were tears in his eyes. He was speaking from the heart. He asked if I could call off Housel and others. [He said] they were destroying him, destroying his career, destroying him financially."

Housel is Robert Housel, a bulldog attorney and former prosecutor who was in hot pursuit of Corn.

It all began seven months earlier, in March 1998. The lawyer for an injured man Corn examined was trying, with no luck, to get records of the doctor's insurance exams. Frustrated, Judge Daniel Gaul not only ordered Corn to give up the information; he boldly appointed Housel as a special master in the case -- a sort of judge's assistant with subpoena power. That summer, Gaul ordered officials from seven insurance companies to reveal how much they'd paid Corn in the previous five years.

A huge legal brawl broke out. The insurers resisted the orders. Lawyers on Corn's side petitioned to get Housel removed as special master, saying he was biased because he was already fighting to get Corn's records in another case.

Meanwhile, in a separate case in Judge Nancy Margaret Russo's courtroom, Coticchia started his own quest to get Corn's files. He demanded seven years' worth of tax returns and records for every insurance exam the doctor had on file. Corn wrote back to say he didn't have the records. But six weeks later, after Russo ordered Corn to comply with the subpoena, the doctor produced 104 reports from 1996 and 1997. Later, his attorney forked over another 77, but said Corn didn't have the tax forms Coticchia wanted.

Russo was unimpressed. She hauled Corn in for a contempt hearing. There, under threat of jail time, she ordered him to sign releases opening up his tax files.

Corn admitted that one reason he disposed of appointment calendars and books was to prevent lawyers from subpoenaing them. Once a case is concluded, he said, he either gives exam files to the lawyer or discards them. Nor does he keep track of how much time he spends working for insurers. "That's not necessary for my business, and I don't want to know."

"And, of course, you don't think it's any of my business either, do you?" Coticchia asked.

"I don't think any of this is any of your business."

Corn's defiance angered the judge. "You don't have much respect for this court," she snapped. After the hearing, Russo widened her inquiry, asking both lawyers to write briefs on whether Corn's discarding of records amounted to contempt.

In October 1998, the appeals court issued temporary orders forcing Gaul, Housel, and Russo to stop investigating Corn. It later declared that Gaul had no authority to appoint a special master and quashed the judge's attempt to seize Corn's records.

The appeals court let Russo proceed with her contempt inquiry. But when the injury case in which Corn testified was settled, the court ordered her to give up, too. The court scolded both judges for exceeding their authority. "Enough is enough already," Judge Diane Karpinski wrote last December.

But a month later, the Supreme Court disagreed. It revived Russo's contempt hearing, ruling that once Corn admitted to destroying records, the case against him crossed from civil to criminal and had to be pursued.

Russo says court rules prohibit her from commenting on the case, since it's still pending. But Gaul's case is over. He has a lot to say. The square-jawed judge still turns furious, three years later, talking about the case. "Dr. Corn thought he was above the law."

Gaul says Corn claimed not to keep exam records -- and then turned over a hundred exams in the Russo case. "When the heat came down, and Dr. Corn got worried about being found in contempt of court and going to jail, he got religion. Or, in other words, he decided to stop lying." If Corn tries to evade his orders again, Gaul says, "He's going to be found in contempt of court, and he's going to spend at least a few days in the McFaul Hilton until he does the right thing." (Sheriff Gerald McFaul runs the county jail.)

"I don't have a problem with Dr. Corn coming in here and saying, 'Hey, look, I made $350,000 last year' . . . But for him to come in here and withhold that information from a jury and act like he's some independent expert is a joke. It's a disgusting joke. And it's one I'm not willing to put up with anymore."

Gaul refers to Corn as "this guy who wears his white physician's uniform with his name inscribed on the left chest, who never takes his eyes off the camera, and comes across as a Marcus Welby type, when he's getting paid his 30 pieces of silver for every opinion he comes up with."

Most judges shy away from talking politics once they don the black robe. Not Gaul. A self-described "good Democratic judge," Gaul calls the appeals court ruling against him "a political decision." Terrence O'Donnell, the judge who signed one of the emergency orders halting Gaul's efforts, later ran for the Ohio Supreme Court, he notes. And insurance companies heavily funded the infamous attacks against O'Donnell's opponent, Justice Alice Robie Resnick. "Do you think, if he came down that hard on Dr. Corn, they'd be as likely to . . . fund his campaign?" Gaul asks. (O'Donnell says politics had "absolutely nothing" to do with his ruling.)

Gaul claims his attempt to investigate Corn was inspired by more than the case in front of him. People trying to get HMOs to pay for expensive medical treatments, as well as accident victims, will suffer "if we have insurance companies that are able to pay experts to get them to say whatever they want them to say," the judge says. "We've got to kick open the door and let that dirty little secret out of the closet."

Yet Gaul has also been accused of using his powers for partisanship. Robert Housel is hardly the sort of guy you'd expect an impartial judge to appoint as his assistant. He's taught seminars on how to impeach defense-expert doctors and was known for aggressively challenging Corn even before Gaul turned to him.

Housel makes no bones about where he stands. He says he takes on doctors like Corn in court to "expose the fact that they are what they are, which is somebody who does the insurance company's bidding."

Attorney Wuliger says that, when Corn broke down in front of him, he tried to intercede between the warring factions. "I was deeply moved by his sincerity and his pain," says Wuliger. "I felt sorry for him." So he tried to get Housel to go easy on the doctor. "I said the guy was more forthcoming in my deposition than I think he's been in others. I think he demonstrated he was truly repentant."

But Housel shows no sympathy. Nor does Gaul. His response to Corn: "Tell the truth."

Sometime early next year, Judge Joseph Cirigliano will decide whether to find Corn in contempt.

Russo recused herself from the case. But a brief her attorney filed makes her position clear. It charges that Corn "impeded the administration of justice" and admitted to destroying documents so they couldn't be subpoenaed in the future. The writing seethes with disdain; the "Dr." before Corn's name repeatedly appears in quotes.

But Patrick McLaughlin, Corn's attorney, says the accusations are overstated and taken out of context. Corn didn't need the files once the cases were over, and he thought he had no legal obligation to keep them. "That was his clear understanding."

Since his battles with Gaul and Russo, lawyers say they've seen less of Corn. Jury Verdict Reports lists Corn as a defense witness in 61 Cuyahoga County cases between 1990 and 1997, but only 13 since.

No judge or jury will ever make a final judgment on whether Corn is biased. But by chasing him until they scared many insurance lawyers out of hiring him, Corn's enemies have already won.