Scientology suit for jury to decide, circuit judge says
© Tampa Tribune
Apr 8, 2000
By GARY SPROTT As criminal charges against the Church of Scientology over the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson hang in the balance, a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the church by McPherson's family grinds toward a June trial. A Hillsborough circuit judge Friday denied requests by both sides that he rule on the civil case before it reaches a jury. Each side had asked for a ruling in its favor based on whether McPherson consented to her stay - and the care she received - at the church's spiritual headquarters in the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater before her death. The church says she did; her survivors say she didn't. McPherson, 36, died after a 17-day stay at the hotel. Lawyers for McPherson's family contend the 13-year Scientologist was held against her will and force-fed medication. Lawyers for the church say McPherson hadm psychiatric problems and was being protected from harming herself. In announcing his decision, Judge James S. Moody Jr. said the case is "replete with factual disputes." Resolving those disputes is a jury's job, not a judge's, he said. Moody also reiterated his view that the lawsuit doesn't revolve around issues of religion. Rather, the issue is: Did McPherson consent to be cared for at the hotel and, if she did, did she later change her mind? But attorneys for the church countered that "everything that happened in this case involves religion" because caregivers at the Fort Harrison were honoring McPherson's religious practices. McPherson didn't want psychiatric treatment, which she may have received had she been cared for in a non-Scientology setting, the lawyers said. Scientologists believe "psychiatry is at the root of all evil," Moody was told. But Moody said one of the allegations in the lawsuit is that McPherson should have been treated for dehydration. Although Scientology rejects psychiatry, he said, it doesn't prohibit other forms of medical treatment. "I think religion is going to be all over this case," Moody said. "But it doesn't go to the core issues." Friday's half-day hearing in the wrongful death lawsuit followed two days of hearings in the Pinellas County criminal case stemming from McPherson's death. Church officials have been charged with practicing medicine without a license and abusing a disabled adult. The church faces a maximum fine of $15,000. However, the church wants those charges dismissed based on an amended autopsy report. Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood now says McPherson's death was accidental rather than undetermined, as she originally reported. Wood removed wording from her original report that stated the blood clot that killed McPherson was caused by bed rest and severe dehydration. She added wording indicating that psychosis and a recent car wreck were contributing factors. Wood revised her report after seeing new test results from experts the church hired. Gary Sprott can be reached at (813) 259-7837.