Former Church Member Awarded $30 Million in Jury Verdict
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Scientologists vowed to fight a $30 million jury award to a man who said his 11-year membership in the church had brought him financial and emotional ruin.
The Rev. Ken Hoden, a Church of Scientology official, said up to 10,000 Scientologists would gather at the downtown courthouse today to protest the jury’s finding for Larry Wollersheim, 37.
″For 20 weeks, the beliefs of the church were dragged through the mud in a mocking manner and we are not going to put up with it,″ Hoden said after the decision Tuesday.
The jury award followed eight days of deliberations and a 94-day Superior Court trial of Wollershiem’s lawsuit against the organization.
The jury decided that Scientology had inflicted emotional distress on Wollershiem, and awarded him $5 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
″We’ve got a verdict that is a clear and strong signal to the tens of thousands of people who feel they have been abused by Scientology ... that they can use the legal system to stand up for their rights,″ Wollersheim said.
Scientology attorney Earle C. Cooley said he plans to argue for a mistrial before Superior Court Judge Ronald Swearinger and, if necessary, appeal to a higher court. The same strategy was employed successfully by the organization last year in Portland, Ore., nullifying a $39 million damage award to another ex-member who had accused the organization of fraud.
Wollersheim alleged in his suit that the church forced him to cut off contact with his family and later branded him an enemy when he suffered a mental breakdown.
Wollersheim, who ran a gift business, argued that his mental lapse was brought on by a form of church counseling called auditing. He also said the church ruined his business.
He said church members harassed him after he left the church in 1979, forcing him to move and change jobs.
In closing arguments, Cooley said Wollersheim was an opportunist whose mental problems were caused by drug abuse.