Scientologists settle death suit

Terms of the unexpected settlement are confidential in the wrongful death suit brought by the estate of Lisa McPherson.

St. Petersburg Times/May 29, 2004
By Robert Farley

A 7-year-old wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of Lisa McPherson against the Church of Scientology reached a surprise settlement this week, ending one of the most fiercely contested and enduring legal battles in Pinellas County history.

The out-of-court agreement ends the last remaining legal threat facing the church after the widely publicized 1995 death of McPherson, a Scientologist who died after 17 days in the care of church members in Clearwater.

Terms of the settlement, reached after several days of mediation in a St. Petersburg law office, were confidential.

"It's over," said church spokesman Ben Shaw. "We look forward to the future and carrying out our mission of helping people attain spiritual freedom."

Lawyer Luke Lirot, who helped Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar represent the McPherson estate in numerous legal cases spawned by the wrongful death lawsuit, said it was time to end the exhaustive and expensive legal battle.

"It was the best way to get these matters resolved and let everyone move on," Lirot said.

Dandar could not be reached for comment. He was attending to a sick relative, Lirot said.

The wrongful death lawsuit generated nightmarish publicity for the church. A lengthy trial promised international media attention.

That a settlement was reached Wednesday night was surprising, given the cavernous divide between the two sides.

Dandar had called past offers from the church "insulting." In one mediation meeting, the church offered $20,000. Dandar countered with $80-million.

Senior Judge Robert Beach insisted on the latest round of mediation before he would set a trial date, Lirot said.

"This time, I think everyone took a good hard look at the many variables in the case," Lirot said.

The two sides met for several days in the St. Petersburg law offices of mediator Michael Keane, Lirot said. Participants in the negotiations were kept to "the barest number possible," Lirot said:

For the Church of Scientology, it was Shaw, Clearwater lawyer Wally Pope and Washington D.C.-based lawyer Monique Yingling. For the McPherson estate, it was Lirot, Dandar and his brother, and McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebreich.

McPherson moved to Clearwater from Dallas in 1994 with her employer, AMC Publishing, a marketing firm operated and staffed largely by Scientologists. Like others at AMC, she wanted to be close to Scientology's spiritual headquarters in downtown.

A year later, McPherson, then 36, became "clear," a state in which a Scientologist is said to be free of inhibitions caused by painful memories in the subconscious.

Two months later, just blocks south of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, she was involved in a minor traffic accident. McPherson exited her sport utility vehicle, took off her clothes and told a paramedic, "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

Paramedics took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Soon, fellow church members showed up and told hospital staff they would care for McPherson. Scientologists oppose psychiatric treatments. McPherson signed out against a doctor's advice and was taken to the Fort Harrison, where she remained for 17 days.

Handwritten daily reports written by low-level Scientologists painted a sobering picture. McPherson fought with her caregivers, refused to eat, cried and broke things. She soiled herself and eventually grew too weak to stand.

Church records show McPherson received doses of chloral hydrate, a prescription sedative, and was given magnesium injections.

The records also say McPherson was cared for by a medical doctor who is not licensed in Florida but worked for the church. The doctor diagnosed her as septic, determined she needed antibiotics and drove her to the hospital, the records said.

The staffers' notes indicated McPherson's weight had dropped dramatically and, one staffer wrote, she "looked very sick and was breathing heavily."

Still, they drove her to a hospital in the next county so she could be seen by a doctor who is a Scientologist. The trip took 45 minutes. At the hospital, McPherson was not breathing and had no heartbeat. The Scientologist doctor pronounced her dead.

Nearly a year after her death, State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged the Church of Scientology with two felonies: practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult.

Those charges were dropped in June 2000 after prosecutors blamed then-Medical Examiner Joan Wood for scuttling their case.

Wood initially said McPherson had died of complications from dehydration. In 2000, five years later, Wood said that after reviewing her findings she determined the death was accidental.

But the civil case, in which the burden of proof is easier to meet than in a criminal cases, endured. Filed in February 1997 on behalf of McPherson's estate by Dell Liebreich of Texas, it contended church staff members let McPherson become severely dehydrated and die.

As in the criminal case, Scientology hired a squadron of top-notch lawyers and committed exhaustive resources. It was a strategy designed to outlast Dandar, observers said.

The case was fought vigorously by both sides.

Over the years, Dandar expanded the case beyond simple negligence, alleging church leaders intentionally allowed McPherson to die to avoid a public relations flap. Going into the latest round of negotiations, the four remaining counts of the lawsuit alleged negligence, battery, infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death.

The church contended Dandar restructured the case to undermine Scientology and its leadership, with the financial backing of millionaire Robert Minton, then the church's chief critic. Minton contributed more than $2-million to fund Dandar's efforts.

"This was like the banner of the whole anti-Scientology movement," Minton once said of the McPherson lawsuit. "Here was a chance to really nail Scientology."

In an astonishing reversal in April 2003, however, Minton took the witness stand for the church and accused Dandar of urging him to lie under oath, drawing up false court records and pushing him to drum up anti-Scientology publicity. Dandar contended Minton's testimony was extorted by the church.

Scientology leaders always denounced the lawsuit, calling it an assault funded by church haters. Their vigorous defense, they said, was needed to set the record straight.

"This settlement was reached four years ago when the medical examiner corrected the death certificate and found Lisa's death to have been accidental, caused by a sudden, unexpected pulmonary embolism," Shaw said.

The agreement comes as the church enjoys unprecedented growth in Clearwater.

To date, the church owns more than $50-million in Clearwater-area properties and is nearing completion of a $50-million Mediterranean Revival-style building nicknamed "Super Power." Additionally, the church now has 565 hotel rooms in and near downtown for visiting Scientologists who consider Clearwater their spiritual mecca.

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said he was pleased with the settlement of such highly visible and controversial litigation, especially in light of the City Council's intent to bring redevelopment plans back before voters sometime next year.

The settlement reached this week was a "global settlement," Lirot said, meaning all of the many offshoot cases filed by the church against the McPherson estate and its attorneys also will go away.

"If nothing else, this will benefit the judicial system of Pinellas County," Lirot joked. "There were a lot of cases out there."

Lirot called the case a once-in-a-career experience, and said the settlement is "good news for both parties."

"Everyone involved gets to move on with their lives," Lirot said.

Timeline of the Case

  • 1994: Lisa McPherson, a longtime Scientologist, moves from Dallas to Clearwater with her employer, AMC Publishing. The company is operated and staffed largely by Scientologists who want to be close to Scientology's spiritual headquarters downtown.
  • June 1995: McPherson becomes mentally disturbed and receives a Scientology procedure called the "Introspection Rundown," in which a troubled person is placed in quiet, dark isolation. No one may speak within the person's hearing. The person is given vitamins and food and encouraged to rest. McPherson has trouble recovering, but later writes a letter praising church staffers for helping.
  • September 1995: McPherson officially becomes "clear," a state in which a Scientologist is said to be free of inhibitions caused by painful memories in the subconscious. Over 13 years, McPherson has spent tens of thousands of dollars on Scientology counseling. She is 36.
  • November 18, 1995: McPherson is involved in a minor traffic accident in Clearwater, after which she takes off her clothes and tells a paramedic: "I need help. I need to talk to someone." She says she's been doing "wrong things she didn't know were wrong." Paramedics take her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, but a group of church members intervenes. McPherson signs out against a doctor's advice and is taken to Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater.
  • December 5, 1995: McPherson has been in the care of Scientologists at the Fort Harrison for 17 days. On the evening of Dec. 5, Scientologists caring for her worry she has become seriously ill. They decide to drive her to a hospital in New Port Richey - a 45-minute trip - so she can be seen by Dr. David Minkoff, a Scientologist who works in the emergency room. At the hospital, McPherson is not breathing and has no heartbeat. She is gaunt, bruised and unkempt, according to records. Minkoff pronounces McPherson dead.
  • December 6, 1995: Clearwater Police quietly begin to investigate. There is no local obituary and no public police report on McPherson's death. News of the case would not leak out until a year later.
  • December 16, 1996: When the investigation becomes public, Scientology accuses Clearwater Police of harassing the church. The church's version of the death: McPherson checked into the Fort Harrison hotel for "rest and relaxation" and "suddenly fell ill."
  • January 1997: The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement join Clearwater Police in the investigation. Medical examiner Joan Wood tells reporters there is no way McPherson "suddenly fell ill."
  • February 19, 1997: In Tampa, McPherson's relatives file a wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology.
  • July 9, 1997: New light is shed on the case when a judge allows the release of internal logs detailing how Scientologists cared for McPherson. The records differ significantly from the account church officials gave.
  • December 15, 1997: Clearwater Police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement complete their investigation and recommend criminal charges in McPherson's death.
  • November 1998: After reviewing the case for 11 months, State Attorney Bernie McCabe charges the Church of Scientology with two felonies: practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult.
  • November 1999: Wood agrees to reconsider her conclusions about McPherson's death.
  • January 2000: Robert Minton, a New England millionaire on a crusade to reform Scientology, opens a headquarters next to church property in Clearwater and calls his organization the Lisa McPherson Trust. Minton has financed the civil lawsuit against Scientology since 1997.
  • February 2000: Wood, after reviewing medical information provided by Scientology, changes McPherson's death certificate. She amends the manner of death from "undetermined" to "accident."
  • June 7, 2000: His review complete, McCabe decides not to prosecute, noting that Wood's change of opinion undercuts the prosecution's effort to prove the criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • July 28, 2000: Hillsborough Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. orders the wrongful death lawsuit be transferred to Pinellas County.
  • November 2001: Minton announces the Lisa McPherson Trust is disbanding and closing its Clearwater headquarters.
  • April 2002: In an astonishing reversal, Minton, who gave Ken Dandar, lawyer for the estate of Lisa McPherson, nearly $2-million to pursue the wrongful death suit, takes the stand for the church in its effort to remove Dandar from a case tied to the wrongful death suit.
  • January 2003: Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer rules the wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology should continue, and that Dandar can remain on the case.
  • May 2004: The estate of Lisa McPherson and the Church of Scientology reach a settlement. The terms are made confidential.

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