AKRON -- The 2016 death of a Canton firefighter will remain classified as a suicide.
A Summit County Common Pleas judge, in a ruling issued Tuesday, sided in favor of the Summit County Medical Examiner's office and an insurance company involved in the case of Tonya Johnson.
Johnson's family maintains her death was a tragic accident and last year filed a multi-count lawsuit that includes an effort to overturn the suicide ruling issued by Medical Examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler.
Judge Amy Corrigall Jones wrote in her ruling she was "mindful and not unsympathetic" to Johnson's family, but was "duty-bound to follow all of the procedural rules and statutes. ... Therefore, this court cannot conclude that the medical examiner's office erred in determining that Tonya Johnson's manner of death was a suicide."
Johnson, 43, died Feb. 22, 2016, after getting out of a truck on Route 8 in Akron and crossing a barrier during rush-hour traffic. She was struck and killed on the highway.
Family members and those close to Johnson testified over three days in January they didn't believe she wanted to kill herself. Her sons testified she believed suicide was a mortal sin that would lead to eternal damnation.
"While the plaintiffs have produced extensive testimonial evidence as to Tonya Johnson's reputation, personal relations with family and friends, spirituality, core beliefs, work ethic, business acumen, love for her children, determination, generosity, etc. ... they have produced very little competent evidence to counter that produced by Dr. Kohler," the judge wrote.
The judge pointed to testimony from witnesses about Johnson's actions that day on busy Route 8. Johnson, who was off duty and returning from a trip to Cleveland, had safer options, including walking back up a ramp on the southbound side, rather than crossing three lanes of southbound traffic and jumping over the concrete barrier into the northbound lanes.
David DuPlain, one of the attorneys representing Johnson's three children, said the family will appeal the judge's decision.
The court's ruling "defies logic" and the evidence presented during the January hearing, he said.
He and fellow attorney Danielle M. Pierce contend the Medical Examiner's office made a rushed judgement of suicide and only later investigated the matter to back up that conclusion.
Pierce said the family was in disbelief when told of the judge's ruling.
"There's no words to describe what they're feeling and what they're going through," she said.
The family is fighting to preserve their mother's reputation and her commitment to the community, she said.
Johnson, a Washington High graduate, had been a Canton firefighter since 1998. She also owned a business helping those with developmental disabilities.
In addition to Johnson's reputation, there's a financial element at stake.
The lawsuit also seeks to force Guardian Life Insurance Company of America to pay $3 million, plus interest, for an insurance policy Johnson had. The judge's ruling noted Johnson had two life insurance policies totaling $5 million, only one of which Guardian paid.
Kohler could not be reached late Tuesday for comment. A call seeking comment was left with the Summit County Prosecutor's office, which represented Kohler.
More on the ruling
Kohler testified at the hearing that she didn't have to be 100 percent to make a finding for suicide. She referenced a professional guide for death classification that recommends using 70 percent or greater certainty for making such rulings. At the hearing, Kohler stood by her ruling, contending it was based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty.
Jones' decision noted that Johnson was in the process of divorcing her husband of eight days and was having significant financial difficulties tied to her business. She left the truck, driven by her soon-to-be ex-husband, without the dissolution papers and without her cellphone, which she would have needed after asking her cousin to come pick her up.
Pierce and DuPlain said Johnson had a background in handling herself in traffic and stopping or crossing it on a regular basis.
"It's the sort of thing you learn to do," DuPlain said.
In the end, the judge wrote, she didn't necessarily have to agree with Kohler's ruling, only that it followed the law.
"One could surmise that this court disagrees with the controlling applicable law or the medical examiner's conclusion. That however, is irrelevant," the judge wrote.
"This court is prohibited from stepping into the shoes of the medical examiner, is constrained to follow the law and required to afford 'much weight' to the medical examiner's conclusion."