Jurors don't buy the church's argument that a lawyer involved in a wrongful death case owes it more than $2-million.
CLEARWATER - A tiny smile creased Ken Dandar's face as a clerk read the first count of the jury verdict.
Compensatory damages he owed the Church of Scientology: $4,500.
Dandar knew then he had won.
The grin widened and Dandar began to playfully pat his attorney, Luke Lirot, as the clerk read through the rest of the counts.
The amount he was obligated to pay the church in punitive damages: zero.
The legal team assembled by the Church of Scientology sat silently, then quickly filed out of the courtroom.
"We won! We won! We won!" shouted Dandar, 48, as he spoke by cell phone with Dell Liebreich.
Liebreich, 74, is the personal representative of the estate of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of the church. From her home in rural Texas, Liebreich laughed and cried.
It has been nearly 30 years since the Church of Scientology established its religious headquarters in downtown Clearwater. But this is the first time a Pinellas jury had been convened in a lawsuit involving the church. The Church of Scientology sought more than $2-million in punitive damages from Dandar, an attorney who spent more than six years championing a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the McPherson estate against the church.
The church claimed Dandar was paid $2,050,000 from a wealthy church critic to turn a "garden variety" wrongful death case into a broad attack on Scientology by naming the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, as a defendant.
The jury didn't buy it.
After less than 21/2 hours of deliberation, the jury concluded no punitive damages were warranted.
Jury forewoman Kandice Brockmeyer, a Pinellas-Pasco assistant public defender, said the church's legal team did not nail down its case.
"They asked us to speculate on a lot," Brockmeyer said. "They didn't show us enough proof."
The church also had sought $50,000 in compensatory damages to cover the legal fees it spent to fight what Scientology attorney Samuel Rosen called a "frontal attack" on Scientology. The jury decided that was too much.
"We spent a lot of time looking at the bills," Brockmeyer said of the jury's decision to award the church $4,500. "This is what we thought was reasonable and necessary."
The jury took issue with the expenses incurred by out-of-town attorneys who appeared to duplicate services of the church's local legal team, she said.
Summing up the case, Brockmeyer said, "It came down to the big law firm versus the little law firm."
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird determined prior to the trial that the estate had breached its contract with the church, because it had previously agreed not to add defendants. The jury was left only to decide how much the church was owed in damages.
One juror, Gregory S. Behncke, said it seemed like a simple matter for the church to defeat Dandar's motion to add Miscavige.
The case also seemed like the church was trying to offset potential damages in the wrongful death case with heavy damages in this one, said Behncke, of Palm Harbor.
Outside the courtroom, Dandar was ecstatic and relieved.
"This was about nothing but them (church attorneys) trying to distract me from the wrongful death case," Dandar said. "I believe now their distractions are over."
A hearing date for the wrongful death lawsuit is expected to be set in late September.
Dandar considered the verdict personal vindication.
"They wanted to hold me out as an example to people who file suit against them," Dandar said.
Several hours after the verdict, church spokesman Ben Shaw issued a brief response: "We're exploring our options, including the effect of 40 violations of court orders by Mr. Dandar and Mr. Lirot and their cumulative effect on the jury."
Shaw would not elaborate.
Lirot, who left the courthouse quickly to catch a plane to Chicago for a different case, said he was exhausted but encouraged.
"It was Mr. Dandar and I against a squadron of opposing counsel," said Lirot, who will act as co-counsel in the wrongful death case.
"When you litigate with the Church of Scientology," Lirot said, "you're in for a bizarre experience."