In a long-awaited ruling on religious liberty, a state appeals court dismissed a claim that the Hare Krishna sect brainwashed a 15-year-old Cypress girl and cut by more than two-thirds a $9.7-million verdict against the group.
In addition to the brainwashing claim, the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego dismissed claims that the Krishnas intentionally caused Robin George emotional distress and libeled her. It left her only a $75,000 award tied to the wrongful death of her father.
Freedom of Religion at Issue
However, the court left intact a $2.9-million judgment for Robin's mother, Marcia George, for emotional distress and libel.
The celebrated case began in 1977 when the George family sued the sect, contending that the group had brainwashed Robin into joining the movement, then hid her from her parents. The complex lawsuit included claims of libel and wrongful death, the latter because stress allegedly brought on the heart attack that killed Robin George's father in 1976. In 1983, an Orange County jury returned a $32.5-million verdict against the sect, a judgment cut to $9.7 million by the trial judge.
In their appeal, the Krishnas contended that the verdict interfered with their constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Attorneys on both sides said Wednesday that appeals of the most recent, 105-page decision are almost certain because neither side can be considered a complete winner.
Robin George "got clobbered," said Lynde Selden, a San Diego attorney representing the Georges. "And, if anybody was wronged by this Krishna behavior, it was Robin. I think her mother agrees. Robin was injured the worst."
Now 29 and known by her married name, Robin George Westerkamp, the interior designer who lives in Orange County called Wednesday's ruling "sad."
The court apparently didn't understand the "element of mind control and how that interferes with your thinking," she said. "The court is looking at this case and saying, 'This girl did these things and had a choice--there must be something wrong with her. '
"If I hadn't gone through this myself, if I was Joe Average or something, I would probably think I didn't deserve anything. But it's not that simple. (It's) not like joining the Baptist church. It's a totally different ballgame."
Marcia George was out of the state Wednesday, her daughter said. She could not be reached for comment.
A group of Krishnas, including about 35 who had walked to San Diego from San Francisco en route to Tijuana to publicize the case, gathered Wednesday afternoon at Horton Plaza downtown to celebrate what they called "a victory for religious freedom."
'Court Was Wise'
"The court was really very wise on that brainwashing fiasco," said Mukunda Goswami, a spokesman, noting that the $9.7-million award would have forced the Krishnas to sell six temples--in San Diego, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Brooklyn, New Orleans and outside New Orleans.
"We're going to recommend that we take it to the (state) Supreme Court, if for no other reason than we don't think the evidence will sustain any of those causes of action as to the old lady," said W. Marshall Morgan, the Los Angeles attorney who represented the Krishnas, formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
David A. Niddrie, the San Diego lawyer who handled the appeal for the Georges, said he had read only parts of the opinion, but said it "troubles me in that it gives these types of organizations the opportunity to . . . mistreat their own members as long as it doesn't sort of adversely affect the interest of people on the outside. I don't think that's the state of the law in California."
The decision is the latest turn in a case that began when Robin George, then a 15-year-old Cypress teen-ager, ran away from home in November, 1974.
She spent most of the next year in Krishna temples in New Orleans and Ottawa, Canada. The following November, she ran away from the Krishnas and returned home.
In March, 1976, less than four months after she returned home, her father, James George, died of a heart attack. The stress caused by his dealings with the Krishnas and his inability to locate his daughter for the year she was gone "significantly shortened his life," an expert testified at trial.
In October, 1977, Marcia and Robin George sued the Krishnas in Orange County Superior Court, contending that the sect brainwashed Robin and then conspired to hide her from her parents. After a five-month trial, a jury returned the $32.5-million verdict. Judge James A. Jackman reduced the amount to $9.7 million.
San Diego attorney Milton Silverman represented the Georges at trial, but did not take part in the appeal.
The "centerpiece" of the appeal, according to Justice Howard Wiener, who wrote the lengthy opinion, was the brainwashing claim. The Georges contended that Robin had been brainwashed and could not leave the temples even if she wanted to.
According to a 1988 ruling from the state Supreme Court--in a case involving the Unification Church--Robin needed to show that the Krishnas physically restrained her from leaving, which they did not, Wiener said.