A lawyer involved in a wrongful death suit should pay more than $2-million, the church contends.
By ROBERT FARLEY
Published August 20, 2003
CLEARWATER - Large and imposing, Church of Scientology attorney Samuel Rosen stood before a Pinellas County jury Tuesday, arms waving, voice booming.
Pointing at Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, he growled to jurors that Dandar had taken a "garden variety" wrongful death lawsuit and allowed a church critic to turn it into "a frontal attack on an entire religion."
Now, Rosen said, Dandar must be punished.
And real punishment, he told jurors, doesn't even begin until they force Dandar to pay Scientology more than $2-million.
The jury, the first ever impaneled in Pinellas County to consider a lawsuit involving the Church of Scientology, will begin deliberations today in what has become a landmark case.
On Tuesday, Rosen implored those jurors to award heavy punitive damages against the lone lawyer who for six years has waged a now-legendary legal battle that has caused nightmares for the church.
The battle stems from the wrongful death lawsuit Dandar filed on behalf of the estate of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days of care at the church's spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater.
The case now before the jury is an outgrowth of that lawsuit.
Church officials cried foul when, more than two years into the wrongful death case, Dandar sought to add as defendants several top church officials, including the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige.
The ensuing bad publicity was devastating to Scientology, church officials said. It also violated a private agreement between the church and the McPherson estate not to add additional defendants, church attorneys contended. So the church sued.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird agreed that the private agreement was breached.
Now, the jury will decide how much Dandar and the estate owe the church in damages.
Rosen argued that church critic Robert Minton paid Dandar $2,050,000 to "hijack" the lawsuit and use it as a platform to attack the church.
Rosen stopped short of recommending a potential award, but said, "you don't punish until that amount is more than $2,050,000."
Dandar and his attorney, Luke Lirot, contend that the breach of contract case is nothing more than an attempt by the church to financially ruin Dandar and the estate and prevent further pursuit of the wrongful death lawsuit.
Dandar would not comment Tuesday about how a multimillion-dollar settlement might affect his pursuit of the wrongful death case. Dandar runs a private practice with his brother in Tampa and, aside from the Minton money, has been financing the case himself.
Lirot will make his closing arguments this morning.
Dandar said his case has been handicapped because Judge Baird would not allow the jury to hear, among other things, why he attempted to add Miscavige.
Dandar has said in the past that he based his attempt to add Miscavige as a defendant on the testimony of a former, high-ranking church official who said decisions about McPherson's care would have come from top church officials. "This jury does not have the full picture," Dandar said after jurors had left for the day.
In testimony Monday and Tuesday, Dandar insisted Minton's money did not influence his decision to add Miscavige. The addition was not a deliberate attempt to hurt the church, he said.
Dandar and the church also disagree over the amount of compensatory damages. The church says it is owed the more than $50,000 in legal fees paid to four law firms to defeat Dandar's attempt to add church leaders to the wrongful death suit. Lirot argued the church is owed no more than $2,500 in legal fees.
No trial date has been set for the wrongful death case.