A Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Tuesday awarded $30 million in damages to a former member of the Church of Scientology who said the organization intentionally drove him to the edge of insanity and ruined him financially for criticizing the group.
The 12-0 verdict in favor of Larry Wollersheim brought gasps from the Scientologists who packed Judge Ronald Swearinger’s courtroom, as they had for the duration of the bitterly contested, raucous five-month trial. Some sobbed.
Wollersheim was awarded $5 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages, which are assessed to deter future such conduct.
“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, 37, said in an interview after the jury’s verdict.
“I think it is justice personified,” added his jubilant attorney, Charles O’Reilly. “What Scientology is about is outrageous conduct and it must be stopped.”
The verdict brought a scathing attack from Scientology attorney Earle C. Cooley--and a promise that “Larry Wollersheim will never collect a dime.”
“The jury is saying, ‘We’re of one religion, you’re of another. . . . If we put you out of business, so what?’ ” Cooley charged outside the courtroom. He called the trial a “broadside attack on the religion of Scientology.”
Cooley said he plans to argue for a mistrial before Swearinger and, if necessary, appeal to a higher court. This same strategy was successfully employed by the church last year in Portland, nullifying a $39-million damage award to another ex-member who had accused the organization of fraud.
Wollersheim filed his lawsuit in 1980 after 11 years in the church, many of them as a staff member.
Wollersheim said in his suit that he spent $100,000 on courses pursuing Scientology’s promises of higher intelligence, greater business success and supernatural powers only to conclude that such promises were false.
He also alleged that certain courses of the church damaged him mentally, a problem he said that the organization tried to correct by subjecting him to more Scientology courses.
“My mind did not feel like one mind,” he testified. “I began to believe I was hundreds of other people. These people could take control and cause me to do things I would never do and dominate my mind.”
Moreover, Wollersheim said, he was forced to “disconnect,” or separate, from family and friends who were critical of his Scientology involvement.
Allegations in Suit
Wollersheim said in his suit that the organization set out to destroy him financially and mentally after he began to question its programs and practices.
While his emotional state crumbled, Wollersheim said, the church initiated a campaign to bankrupt a novelty store business he owned.
Although Scientology repeatedly characterized the Superior Court proceeding as a heresy trial, jury foreman Andre A. Anderson said afterward that the jury did not consider religion in reaching its decision. He said Scientology’s “outrageous” policies turned the vote in Wollersheim’s favor.
“The church has various policies we felt were in violation of civil law,” Anderson said. “The defendant tried to portray the case as being a case of First Amendment rights regarding freedom of religion.
Specifically, Anderson and several other jurors cited testimony about the church’s controversial “fair game” doctrine, allegedly employed against perceived enemies of the organization. It was authored by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died last January, and included in official church literature.
According to the policy, which was introduced as evidence in the case, an individual declared fair game “May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”
The church contended that the policy was rescinded in 1968. But Anderson said the fair game policy “was canceled in name only” and had been implemented against Wollersheim.
Juror Bill Henderson said “we think the church practiced the fair game policy and drove him out of business” after he fell from the organization’s good graces. “We don’t think the church has a right to punish somebody like him.”
Henderson said the organization ruined Wollersheim’s business by instructing its members not to pay substantial sums owed to Wollersheim.
Several jurors reacted with outrage at how Scientology, through its official policies, treated Wollersheim. One juror, Edmonay Artison, called it “torture.” Juror Helen Silver said, “I don’t believe in anybody destroying anybody else’s life.”
Juror Terri Reuter added: “Religion should not hold a policy like the ‘fair game’ policy over anyone’s head.”