Lawsuit grinds to another delay
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- After six years, it finally appeared the wrongful death suit against the Church of Scientology was headed for trial Tuesday.
Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer had cleared her calendar for six weeks.
Some 1,800 prospective jurors had been summoned.
But Friday, a clearly frustrated Schaeffer postponed the highly publicized case once again, probably for at least several months.
Schaeffer granted the delay so the church could appeal her earlier ruling that Ken Dandar should not be disqualified as attorney for the estate of Lisa McPherson, the church member who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of Scientologists in Clearwater.
The church claims Dandar ought to be removed because of professional misconduct, including alleged perjury. In a 67-page order released Monday, Schaeffer disagreed.
But Friday, Schaeffer said she could not risk holding a trial only to have an appeals court conclude that Dandar should have been disqualified and require a retrial.
"I am most disappointed," Schaeffer told the assembled attorneys. "You know I don't want to continue this case. You know I want to move forward."
Both sides say their efforts to follow Schaeffer's orders to try to settle the case have now reached an impasse. But in interviews this week, both camps shed light on how close they came to settling the bitterly contested lawsuit.
Marty Rathbun, a top church official, said a deal was reached in a marathon mediation session the day before Thanksgiving, but Dandar reneged.
"Everything was agreed on," Rathbun said. "It was settled lock, stock and barrel."
Dandar backed out, Rathbun said, because he personally is motivated to continue the fight. Dandar faces countersuits by the church accusing him of abusing the legal process. He also has a stake in the ongoing legal entanglements surrounding more than $2-million that millionaire and one-time Scientology critic Robert Minton gave Dandar to help fund the case.
This week, Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird, who is handling a related case, concluded that Dandar inappropriately commingled that money with his personal accounts. Baird vowed to report those "serious violations" to the Florida Bar.
Rathbun says Dandar is using the case as a platform to attack the church and that his personal agenda has made it impossible to settle.
Dandar scoffs at that and contends that no deal was ever reached. Money wasn't the hangup in the negotiation, he said. Instead, it was other demands made by the church, which he refused to discuss. He branded Rathbun's account as an attempt to drive a wedge between him and the estate's representative, McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebreich of Texas.
Dandar said he now just wants to bring the case to trial and "expose the truth about what they did to Lisa McPherson.".
Longtime Clearwater attorney Denis deVlaming, who has represented Scientology's harshest critics, said he would be shocked if the lawsuit ever came before a jury.
"I thought the church would either get it knocked out, or they would wear Dandar out, or at the very end they'd settle," deVlaming said. "I don't think the church wants what Dandar is going to do in that courtroom. I think they desperately want to be legitimized. I think they desperately want to be accepted in the community."
Dandar has said the estate is seeking about what one would expect from an average nursing home abuse case involving a death.
That's about $5-million, deVlaming said.
"I'm surprised with the wealth of the church they haven't come up with it," he said.
Rathbun and Dandar refused to discuss how much the church offered. Dandar noted, though, that in two recent cases involving deaths of nursing home patients resulting from bed sores, juries awarded $15-million and $150-million.
"It's somewhere in between," Dandar said of what the McPherson estate seeks.
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