Punitive damages allowed in Scientology case

 

A judge says a jury may decide on damages in the case of Lisa McPherson, who died after being cared for by church members.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 1999


TAMPA -- The family of Lisa McPherson can seek punitive damages if the Church of Scientology is found to have caused her death, a judge ruled Friday.

The ruling came after a five-hour hearing in which church lawyers vigorously argued that the family had no grounds to seek a windfall from Scientology.

Their argument: Churches cannot be made to pay punitive damages because of a new Florida law that says governments "shall not substantially burden the free exercise of religion" without a "compelling governmental interest."

A punitive damage award would needlessly punish Scientology's members by taking church money intended as donations, Scientology lawyer Eric M. Lieberman argued. He said the court had no compelling interest in penalizing those members.

The new law is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998. The church has used it as a defense in Pinellas County, where Scientology's Clearwater branch has been criminally charged with abusing and illegally practicing medicine on McPherson. McPherson, 36, suffered a mental breakdown in 1995 and spent 17 days under the care of staffers at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. She died after the staffers drove her to a hospital 45 minutes away in Pasco County. A Scientologist doctor at the hospital, Dr. David Minkoff, had agreed to see her.

An autopsy report said she died of a blood clot in her left lung.

Through her estate, McPherson's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February 1997.

Ken Dandar, the lawyer for the estate, argued the state has a compelling interest in "preserving life."

"This organization exists for one reason -- to make money," he said of Scientology. "Therefore, punitive damages are the only thing that wakes them up to stop what they are doing."

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. ruled a jury could at least consider whether punitive damages were warranted. He cited a sworn statement by Minkoff, the Scientologist doctor in Pasco County, who pronounced McPherson dead. Minkoff has testified he was "shocked" by McPherson's condition at the hospital.

Moody also said a jury should be allowed to hear testimony from doctors hired by Dandar who say the Scientology staff clearly should have taken McPherson to a hospital sooner.

The judge said Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not prevent the state from protecting the public against "certain acts."

The issue will not be relevant unless a jury finds that Scientology caused McPherson's death. A trial is scheduled for June.

Friday's hearing also provided a preview of what jurors might hear about a major piece of evidence: the records that Scientology staffers kept as they cared for McPherson.

Dandar said the records show she was held and medicated against her will, force-fed and allowed to become so dehydrated she lapsed into a coma.

Morris "Sandy" Weinberg, an attorney for the church, said the records prove otherwise and are buttressed by a new affidavit from the assistant medical examiner who conducted the McPherson autopsy. Both documents show McPherson was not dehydrated and that staffers tried to take good care of her, he said.

return to Lisa page