Jury awards $5 million over ' False Memory Syndrome' case

Star-Tribune/March 17, 2001

Eau Claire, Wis. -- A jury awarded $5 million in damages Friday in finding that therapists planted false memories in the mind of a former school teacher who accused her parents and brother of abusing her.

The jury in Eau Claire County Circuit Court decided that the late Nancy Anneatra was a victim of abuse by the therapists, not her relatives. The jurors said the therapists, Dr. H. Berit Midelfort of Edina, Minn., and Celia Lausted of Colfax, along with Midwest Medical Insurance Co., should pay Delores and Tom Sawyer and their daughter' s estate $5.08 million.

The award came after about 10 hours of deliberations at the close of a three-week trial.

The Sawyers, of Motley, Minn., cried as the verdict was read. " This is a tragedy that has happened to the Sawyer family, a lot of families, " said Madison attorney Bill Smoler, one of the family' s attorneys.

Thomas Jacobson, an attorney for Midelfort, and Thomas Misfeldt, Lausted' s attorney, didn' t comment.

The case centered around the phenomenon of False Memory Syndrome. Supporters define it as a psychological condition in which a person believes he or she remembers events that have not occurred. Opponents say there is no such condition, but the term can be used to hide past abuse.

Nancy Anneatra, then Nancy Sawyer, received counseling in 1984 from Lausted and a psychiatrist not named in the lawsuit.

After a year of treatment, Anneatra, then in her 20s, accused her parents of physically and sexually abusing her as a child.

The Sawyers denied the abuse, but Anneatra severed all ties with them and changed her name to make it difficult to find her. She continued to receive counseling and in 1987 came under the treatment of Midelfort.

One year later she sued her parents for civil damages for the claimed abuse. The suit was dismissed.

Anneatra continued in therapy until she died in 1995. Her family was notified of her death by a note left in a mailbox.

In 1996 Delores and Tom Sawyer filed their lawsuit. It was dismissed, but they appealed and the case eventually made it to the state Supreme Court, which said the parents had a right to seek damages for pain caused by their daughter' s accusations.

In its decision Friday, the jury found Anneatra' s claims of childhood sexual abuse were grounded upon inaccurate memories implanted by Lausted and reinforced by Midelfort.

The jury held Midelfort 80 percent responsible and Lausted 20 percent.

" I' m so happy for the Sawyers, " said Katie Spanuello of Wauwatosa. Eleven years ago, her daughter accused husband Leo Spanuello of abusing her as a child and Katie Spanuello of doing nothing about it.

Since then the Spanuellos have become volunteers for the Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

" I am so happy the jury saw it for what it is, " Katie Spanuello said. " This is never going to bring their daughter back, but maybe now people will pay attention."

However, Pamela Perskin, executive director of the Dallas-based International Council on Cultism and Ritual Trauma, expressed concern about the verdict.

" If a therapist has to worry about a third-party lawsuit, he may not listen for nuances in a story that is told to him, " she said. " He may not take it seriously. He may not want to take it seriously."

Perskin, a children' s advocate, said the syndrome is a farce even though she believes people sometimes are falsely accused of abuse.

" It is an artificial term constructed by apologists for child abusers," she said.

The case could be appealed, but Smoler said he expects it to open the door for similar third-party lawsuits in the state. " It gives the families a chance to fight back, " he said.

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