TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - A judge has ruled that Scientology leader David Miscavige can be named as a defendant in a lawsuit over the death of a church member who spent 17 days in isolation at a church retreat.
Lisa McPherson, 36, died Dec. 5, 1995, as church staffers took her to see a Scientologist doctor. An autopsy found she died of a blood vessel blockage in her left lung caused by severe dehydration and bed rest.
Scientology officials said she had been taken to the retreat to recover from a mental breakdown and had been well cared for.
Her family's wrongful death lawsuit alleges Miscavige "totally controls" the church and that his ecclesiastical role is part of a setup to shield Scientology and its leaders from liability.
According to the lawsuit, Miscavige had been informed of McPherson's deteriorating condition and staffers acted on his orders as she became psychotic and was "imprisoned."
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge James S. Moody ruled Tuesday that the leader could be added to the lawsuit. Church leaders said the step could add years to the case.
Miscavige, 39, took the reins of Scientology in the early 1980s. He is credited with improving church operations, updating its materials and securing tax-exempt status from the IRS.
The church was founded in 1954 by the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who said people gather traumatic memories in past lives that hinder them in the present. Scientologists believe those memories can be cleared through church counseling.
McPherson was hospitalized after police found her disoriented after a fender bender. Several Scientologists showed up at the hospital and checked her out against the advice of doctors.