St. Petersburg -- The Church of Scientology won a partial victory Thursday when a judge dismissed one of four counts in a 4-year-old wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of Lisa McPherson.
In one of his final acts overseeing the case, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada dismissed the count alleging that McPherson was falsely imprisoned. Ken Dandar, the lawyer representing the McPherson estate, argued that McPherson was psychotic and incapable of giving her consent when she was taken by members of the church to the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. The 36-year-old Scientologist died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers.
Although the lawsuit has yet to make it before a jury, Quesada on Thursday granted a motion to dismiss the false imprisonment count. "Based on the undisputed facts of this case, plaintiff has not made and cannot make a showing that Lisa McPherson was unlawfully restrained "against her will' by the defendants," Quesada wrote in his 49-page opinion. "In fact, all of the evidence indicates the opposite. Lisa McPherson refused psychiatric observation or admission at the hospital; she expressly stated her desire to receive the religious care and assistance from her fellow congregants that she and they wanted her to have.
"Moreover ... McPherson exhibited bizarre and psychotic behavior, there is no competent evidence that Lisa McPherson demanded to be released and was unlawfully restrained from leaving," Quesada wrote. Church spokesman Ben Shaw called it the most significant ruling in the case to date. "Lisa was a very dedicated member of the church, and people were doing their best to help her," Shaw said.
Kendrick Moxon, a lawyer for Scientology,called the lawsuit "nothing more than a vehicle to say bad things about the church." Dandar said he will appeal Quesada's ruling. He said after a hearing Thursday that Quesada's order was based on false testimony and disregards the testimony of several psychiatrists who said McPherson was incapable of giving consent.
But the ruling is not damaging to the main part of the case, Dandar said. "It is not central at all," Dandar said. "Even if the jury were going to believe that Lisa wanted and consented to go to the hotel, she never consented to dying."
Because of a shuffling of judicial assignments, the lawsuit will now be transferred to Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer. Dandar said he plans to file a motion asking Schaeffer to recuse herself because of previous comments she made that he said were sympathetic to the church.