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Family Ties

How Craig Bashein helped the Chardon High victims’ families

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Published in 2016 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine

By RJ Smith on December 2, 2015


Closure. It’s sought after, craved, and sometimes beyond reach when a family tragically loses a member.

On Feb. 27, 2012, in a snowbelt school in the northeast corner of Ohio, morning announcements were ending. A football coach was taking study hall attendance in the Chardon High cafeteria when a teenager pulled out a handgun and shot six students, killing three.

The shooting was a national story; prayer vigils were held and President Barack Obama offered his condolences. A year later, Craig Bashein and co-counsel filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the families and estates of the three victims against the teenage gunman, T.J. Lane, and members of his family.

On the second anniversary of the shooting, Russell King, the grieving father of one of the victims, killed himself. Bashein read the news on the Internet. “There’s no question Mr. King was a fourth victim of T.J. Lane,” says Bashein. “He died of a broken heart.”

Also on that second anniversary, Bashein filed a suit against the school and school district where the shooting occurred, on behalf of the three victims’ families and estates. That case is pending; a settlement in the earlier suit saw each estate receive about $890,000.

Bashein hopes his cases prompt schools to take greater precautions to protect students and faculty. He would like to see more schools with assigned uniformed police officers and security measures such as locked doors, screening of non-students and live-monitored security cameras.

“They are so inspirational,” he says of the families involved. “You feel privileged to represent them. They are all, in my mind, friends; all are giving back to the community. I think they’re doing everything they can to heal wounds in that school system.”

Bashein & Bashein, as its name implies, is all about family. Bashein is president; his brother, Richard, is his partner; and his sister, Pam, is a paralegal. And family is very much on Bashein’s mind as he sits in the backyard of his French country-style house in the woodsy community of Hunting Valley, about a half-hour from his office in Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. Pastel portraits of his three children hang by the staircase.

A picturesque pond lies at the bottom of the driveway, but there’s nothing pastoral about this frantic weekday morning: Contractors and landscapers are all but bumping into each other in a frenzy of work being done on the house. Car keys in hand, his wife, Michele, announces she’s off to run an errand. 

At the center of the activity is 55-year-old Bashein, wearing a blue suit and brown shoes, dressed for the office but with his feet up on a fire pit, talking about his childhood. He spent his early years in Shaker Heights, in a neighborhood where a kid could tie a bat and ball to the rack of his Schwinn and be gone until dinnertime. “It was a different time back then. Now, if you don’t know where your child is, you’re accused of negligence.”

When Bashein was growing up, Cleveland was just the town he knew. But as an adult, his regard for the area has grown. “I love Northeast Ohio and Cleveland,” Bashein says. “Cleveland is an iconic city with great institutions. It’s neat to be a very, very small part of it.”

His grandfather, Jack Bashein, fled his homeland of Russia a few years before the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Jack’s son Bill—Bashein’s dad—became a lawyer and inspired his own son to follow in his footsteps. Bashein got a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and graduated from OSU’s law school in 1986. By then he was ready to see life outside the Buckeye State, planning to work for a large Southern California firm where he had clerked during the summer.

Then he got a call from his dad. Bashein’s gruff voice softens as he talks about his father, a Case Western graduate who started the firm in 1949. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and didn’t know how long he would be around. Bashein changed his plans: “I decided to stay in Cleveland and started working with him.” In 1986, the firm name was changed to Bashein & Bashein. Bill died in 1991.

His son never left Cleveland, and today he’s a figure in state politics (he has been a superdelegate for the Democratic Party), is active in charities, and wouldn’t want to practice law anywhere else.

Peter Marmaros, a catastrophic injury lawyer, worked with Bashein as co-counsel on many cases, including the Chardon High School shooting. “We all go to law school and come out with these ideas that we’re going to change the world,” he says. “Unfortunately, after going around the block a few times, the world tosses an ice bucket of water in your face, and the dreams can get shattered. Craig is one of those rare individuals who still has his moral compass in place. He hasn’t given up on trying to fix the world.”

Bashein says he tries to do that by always being ready to go to trial, and by treating the other side with respect.

“My focus all my career has been on helping Ohio families,” he says, “especially on cases involving children.”

In a current case, Bashein represents the family of an autistic child who drowned in a pool while at a school summer program. He has also argued successfully that adult children of injured plaintiffs can sue for damages.

In 1999, Bashein worked on a major class action: Santos v. Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. After Angel Santos lost three fingers in a stamping-press accident, then received a $500,000 settlement from his employer, Ohio demanded Santos pay back $122,000 to the state for workers’ compensation payments for medical bills, wage loss and disability payments. The case ended up being filed on behalf of all Ohio workers in similar situations.  Nearly 8,000 had repaid their workers’ comp payments as demanded by the state. Lead counsel Bashein helped land a $52 million judgment for the group. The case ultimately went to the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled that it was valid to sue to recover funds improperly collected by the state, and that these cases could be filed in an Ohio Common Pleas Court, rather than a Court of Claims, where Bashein says many attorneys feel chances of recovery are reduced.

Another client was Deanna O’Donnell, a municipal judge in Parma and mother of four. She had been married for 23 years when her husband was killed in a construction accident. “I met [Bashein] and he did not treat me at all like a client; he treated me like a woman in mourning,” she recalls. “He was so kind, so considerate, so thoughtful to the pain I was going through. It wasn’t about a case, not about winning or losing; it was about showing compassion to a woman and her children.

“My husband’s name was Craig, too. And [Bashein] just told me that everyone in the courtroom—every attorney, the judge, everyone—they are going to know who Craig was and what kind of a father he was. My husband was everything to me, and I just wanted people to know that. And without asking me, he understood—that the kids and I wanted everyone there to know what a great man my husband was. Craig did that for us.”

A day and a half after the trial began, both parties agreed to a confidential settlement.

“I think being a trial lawyer is storytelling,” Bashein says. “When I’m involved in a case, early in discovery, I’m telling that story. And in the cases we are involved in, it is sure to be a great story. If I’m representing a family who’s lost a loved one or experienced a catastrophic injury, there’s a story to tell about the family and what happened to that individual—and more often than not, it’s about egregious conduct that led to that tragedy.”

After so many of these cases, does a personal injury attorney start to view the world as an abnormally dangerous place?

“My kids accuse me of being way too cautious, of not letting them do things,” he says, laughing. He has three teenage children. “It’s funny, there’s probably not a lot of trial lawyers who have trampolines in the backyard, if you know what I mean. It does jade you a bit.”

Bashein changes subjects. “Do you want to see the war room?” he asks.

In contrast to the bright contemporary décor of the rest of the house, the war room, on the second floor, is wood-paneled and filled with antiques. It feels like entering another place, another time.

It’s not about his wars in the courtroom.  Bashein has a fascination with the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. Displayed in cases on the wall and lining the floor are artifacts of the battle, bought and bartered from dealers and collectors. Many came right off the battlefield. There are complete uniforms for both Union and Confederate forces; guns dug up from the Pennsylvania soil; and folk art monuments encrusted with bullets, wood and scrap pulled off the Gettysburg landscape.

Why Gettysburg? Bashein talks about its importance to the North, and how it deepened the conviction of the Union forces. Of course, he mentions the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln, after all, was also a trial lawyer who knew how to tell a story.

In the middle of the room sits an antique bed; there’s a TV set, too. “The kids love to spend time in there,” he says. “It’s a great spot to read, have privacy and watch a little TV.”

So the war room is also a family room. That says a lot about Bashein. As Marmaros says, “He is one of those rare individuals that is able to understand the balance in life. He’s there, sure, for his clients and for his cause, but—I can’t put it in English, but I can put it in Yiddish: He’s a mensch. He’s someone who gets what life is about. He understands the sorrow and the joys.”

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