[The headline to this is incorrect but the story itself is reasonably accurate.]
From the October 13, 2003 Lawyers Weekly USA
Lawyer 'Wins' Slander Suit Against Him By Church Of Scientology By Natalie White
In the latest installment in a twisted and protracted battle, a Florida jury ordered a lawyer to pay $4,500 to the Church of Scientology for an improper legal move that the church said led to a wave of bad publicity.
However, attorney Kennan Dandar was jubilant when the jury read the verdict against him since it was a far cry from the $50,000 in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages sought by the Church of Scientology.
Dandar was sued for his role as opposing counsel in a wrongful death case against the church.
Church officials said in their lawsuit that Dandar had breached an agreement between the church and his client - the estate of Scientologist Lisa McPherson - to limit the defendants named in the wrongful death suit when he added high-level church officials to the suit.
Among the church officials named was its worldwide leader David Miscavige.
Dandar saw the verdict as a victory since the judge had already ruled that he had, in fact, breached the agreement and that the jury had to decide how much he should pay for the violation
The jury awarded zero punitive damages, a clear rebuff of the church's demand that he pay $2 million - the amount he was supposedly paid by a wealthy church critic to use the wrongful death lawsuit as a way to launch a broad attack on Scientology.
The 'Introspection Run-Down'
The wrongful death lawsuit stemmed from a traffic accident McPherson was involved in back in 1995. According to Luke Lirot, Dandar's attorney, following the two-car collision McPherson got out of the car, took her clothes off, and ran to an ambulance that was nearby attending to another unrelated accident. The ambulance took her to the nearest hospital, where doctors wanted to keep her for observation to determine if she was a threat to herself or others. She did not appear to be suffering from any major physical injury.
However, church officials demanded that she be released into their care, saying it would be against the religion of Scientology for her to receive psychiatric treatment at the hospital, Lirot said. The hospital reluctantly released her and she was taken to the church to undergo an "introspection run-down," which Lirot said consists in part of limiting food, drink and human contact as a way to treat those with mental illness or those considering leaving the church.
According to the Church of Scientology International's website, Scientology's creed states that "The study of the mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in non-religious fields."
The website says that Scientology, founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, is a growing religion that defines itself as a journey of self-discovery and the "study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, universes and other life." Scientology is highly critical of the medical establishment, particularly the psychiatric world, claiming individuals can know and help themselves and those around them without the trappings of psychiatry.
Lisa McPherson died after being cared for for 17 days at the church's headquarters. The church argued that she died from a pulmonary embolism caused by the traffic accident.
In the wrongful death suit, McPherson's estate argues that the church allowed McPherson to become dehydrated and die while in its care during an "introspection run-down." Lirot said McPherson lost considerable weight and that her family believed she slipped into a coma and died because of inhumane and inadequate care.
After McPherson's death, church officials offered Dandar a deal: They would earmark enough money to pay a judgment if the McPherson estate won its wrongful death suit, in return for an agreement from Dandar that the estate would not name additional church officials or organizations in the suit.
Lirot said Dandar felt the agreement was wise at the time to prevent the church from trying to hide assets. However, as the investigation into McPherson's death continued, her relatives began to suspect that higher-ups knew of McPherson's case and might also be responsible.
"He felt it was worthy of further exploration," Lirot said, explaining why Dandar added top church officials to the suit.
This prompted the church's countersuit against Dandar for breaching the contract and slandering the church. In a pretrial motion, Judge W. Douglas Baird ruled that Dandar had, in fact, broken a private agreement. Once that was decided, Lirot said the challenge was to show the jury that the church's damage requests were overblown.
To help its case, the defense called an expert on attorneys' fees who testified that the church's fight against adding the high-level defendants should have cost a few thousand dollars - not the $50,000 the church claimed to have spent.
"Obviously our basic argument was, 'How can anyone rack up $50,000 for one motion and one hearing?'" Lirot said. He said it was a relatively straightforward matter for the church to defeat Dandar's request to add the additional defendants.
Although the church could document its expenses, Lirot argued that the work of a large out-of-state law firm was unnecessary because it duplicated legal work already done by local counsel.
"Our expert talked about how it is not what you spend but what is reasonable and necessary to spend," Lirot said.
Lirot said another key to their "victory" was a tactical decision made during jury selection. One of the potential jurors was a local assistant public defender. She also knew one of the attorneys working for the church.
Lirot said after careful consideration the defense decided not to ask that she be removed from the jury.
"She could have favored my opponent but I figured that no public defender, used to working on almost no budget, was going to think $50,000 in attorneys' fees was reasonable," he said.
Indeed, the strategy appeared to work.
After the verdict, the woman - who became the jury forewoman - was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times reports saying the jurors felt the legal costs were overblown.
"We spent a lot of time looking at the bills," Kandice Brockmeyer told the paper. "[The $4,500] is what we thought was reasonable and necessary."
Lirot said the defense may have overwhelmed the jury with paperwork.
"From my perspective, they may have been overly aggressive with their objections, bills for legal fees, paperwork and e-mails. I think they tried to cover so much ground, giving the jury too much to digest, that the jury couldn't tell what anyone did," he said.
Samuel Rosen, who represented the church, said his clients are appalled by the decision and will appeal if their motion for a new trial is denied. He said the church has also filed a motion for contempt against Lirot, saying he committed 40 violations against court orders during the trial. For example, Rosen said defense attorneys violated a judge's order not to characterize McPherson's death as murder, homicide or the like when a defense witness testified that the church "killed" McPherson.
Rosen said the church's strongest piece of evidence was that a long-time church critic paid Dandar $250,000, and that immediately after the check cleared, Dandar made a motion to add top church officials to the wrongful death suit. Rosen said this supported the church's contention that the critic wanted Dandar to use the wrongful death suit as a platform to attack the church.
Lirot said he believes the church is trying to drain Dandar's resources to make it difficult for him to pursue the wrongful death suit. Church officials have filed several complaints with the Florida Bar Association, the notary association and others against Dandar and Lirot.
"They're trying to starve their opponent but eventually we will have our day in court," Lirot said. "When you litigate with the Church of Scientology it's a zany and bizarre experience. If you have flatulence in the elevator they report you to the bar."
Defense attorney Rosen said he believes that the reason the jury did not find the church's case compelling is that the jurors were "poisoned" by pre-trial publicity in the region. He said the local press has been "blatantly prejudiced" against the church, and its coverage of the wrongful death case has been "intense and vitriolic" and aimed at "running the church out of town."
"We knew that there was so much adverse press that there was no way to get a fair trial," Rosen said.
Motions to change the venue were denied.
A trial date for the McPherson wrongful death case is expected to be set soon although the trial has been postponed several times already.
Plaintiffs' Attorneys: Samuel Rosen, solo, in New York; F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns in Clearwater, Florida.
Defense Attorney: Luke Lirot, solo, in Tampa, Florida; Kennan Dandar and Thomas Jr. Dandar of Dandar & Dandar in Tampa, Florida.
The Case: Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization v. Liebreich; Sixth Judicial Circuit, Pinellas County, Florida; Judge W. Douglas Baird.
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