Suit accuses Scientologists of negligence in death

By CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - Scientologists ignored a comatose member's medical needs and their negligence resulted in her death, a lawsuit filed Wednesday says.

An autopsy found Lisa McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.''

McPherson had bruises, abrasions and what Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood said appeared to be cockroach bites.

McPherson was 36 when she was dead on arrival at a New Port Richey hospital in December 1995.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court by Tampa attorney Kennan G. Dandar on behalf of McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebreich of Dallas. In addition to compensatory damages, the suit seeks ``substantial'' punitive damages.

The lawsuit contends McPherson was held against her will in total isolation at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel as part of a technique called the ``Introspection Rundown.''

``During her confinement, Lisa McPherson slipped into a coma,'' the lawsuit says. ``The caregivers of the Church of Scientology permitted Lisa McPherson to remain in a coma for an extended period of time which resulted in severe dehydration and ultimately her death ....''

It says, ``it was obvious that while in a coma she needed nutrition, liquids and urgent medical care and treatment.''

Instead, the lawsuit says, McPherson was supervised by ``medically untrained and unlicensed personnel'' who followed Scientology's policies, procedures and bulletins.

The church ``willfully, intentionally, maliciously and as a result of their members' culpable negligence ignored her medical condition which required urgent medical care,'' the lawsuit says.

Scientology attorney Elliot Abelson said the church denies the allegations. ``There remains no evidence whatsoever that the church did anything irresponsible to harm Lisa McPherson,'' Abelson said. ``Members of the church were trying to help someone who needed help.''

Abelson said the lawsuit ``proves the Clearwater Police and the local media are spreading lies in order to create hatred against the church.'' McPherson herself ``would hate what is going on,'' Abelson said.

Dandar said he is not on a crusade against Scientology.

``I don't care that it's the Church of Scientology; it could be the Boy Scouts,'' Dandar said. ``She died in their exclusive care, custody and control and that's the only thing I care about.''

McPherson's death is under investigation by the medical examiner's office, as well as the Clearwater Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office. Her death was first reported by The Tampa Tribune in December.

The lawsuit gives the following account of McPherson's last days:

She had an ``extremely minor'' car accident on Nov. 18, 1995, in which she sustained no injuries.

It says she got out of her vehicle and, with a fixed stare, said, ``I need help, I need to talk to someone.'' She also exhibited ``unusual behavior.'' Police have said she removed her clothing at the scene.

She was taken by ambulance to Morton Plant Hospital ``where she received emergency medical and psychological treatment which she sought.''

Scientologists went to the hospital and persuaded McPherson to leave with them to return to the Fort Harrison. Scientologists repeatedly assured hospital personnel they would provide 24-hour care to McPherson. The hospital reluctantly released her to the church.

Church members took McPherson back to the hotel, where she was on the ``Introspection Rundown.'' She remained there 17 days. On Dec. 5, 1995, after observing McPherson in an unconscious state and severely dehydrated for several days, Scientologists bypassed the nearest hospital and drove her some 20 miles in a private van to Columbia/HCA New Port Richey Hospital to see a Scientologist doctor. She was dead on arrival.

Scientology carried out those actions in its attempt to subdue McPherson's will so that she would succumb to the will of Scientology, the lawsuit says.