The Tampa Tribune

January 29, 1999, Friday, FINAL EDITION


Judge denies Scientologists' request in suit

By GARY SPROTT of The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - The Church of Scientology is denied a delay in the wrongful-death lawsuit it faces in Hillsborough County.

A Hillsborough County judge has rejected the Church of Scientology's request to halt proceedings in a civil lawsuit against it while the church faces criminal charges.

Both cases stem from the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson in December 1995. McPherson, 36, died after a 17-day stay at the church's Clearwater headquarters building. An autopsy found she died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest.

McPherson's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the church and several others in 1997, alleging she was held against her will.

In November, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged the church with felony counts of abuse and neglect of a disabled adult, and unauthorized practice of medicine.

The church recently asked for a stay in the civil case. It argued that its attorneys would be burdened by providing a defense on two fronts, according to court papers.

But in an order signed Monday, Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. wrote that "the potential burden on defense attorneys does not mandate the entry of a stay" for the church.

Moody, however, did grant a six-month stay in discovery - the gathering of evidence and exchange of information - to the three individual defendants named in the lawsuit. Scientologists Janis Johnson, Alain Kartuzinski and David Houghton were McPherson's caregivers in the days before her death, the lawsuit alleges.

Moody wrote that the delay would not prejudice McPherson's family and still would leave the parties time to prepare for an anticipated trial date of no earlier than February 2000.

The individual defendants may seek to extend the stay, but it is "unlikely to be granted," he wrote.

The church and individual defendants also had argued that without a stay they could risk criminal prosecution if they did not invoke the Fifth Amendment in the civil case. The statute of limitations for criminal charges that could be brought against them over McPherson's death ends in December. At that time they can't invoke their constitutional privilege against self-incrimination in the civil case.

But the church is a corporation, Moody wrote, and cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment.

As to the individual defendants, he wrote that the delay would be a "fair balancing."

Kartuzinski and Houghton have been granted immunity for their testimony in the criminal case, Moody noted, but the immunity does not extend to information they give in the civil case.