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Therapists running amok in Wenatchee?

Archive of news stories on Wenatchee Perez Investigation

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Jury reaches verdict in negligence trial focusing on memories

january 01, 2010

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) - A jury awarded a family about $850,000 Thursday, finding that a psychiatrist negligently treated a woman who accused him of implanting false childhood memories of sexual abuse and sex with animals.

A 15-person Marathon County jury deliberated about 25 hours following five weeks of testimony from some of the country's leading psychiatrists in a trial that focused on repressed-memory therapy, including the use of hypnosis, and the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder.

"In my view, there is no defense for this kind of therapy. If that means that this is now a message that this stuff has to stop, I hope the message is delivered," said William Smoler, an attorney for Joan Hess and her family.

"This is a vindication this craziness was not her fault," he said.

Mrs. Hess and her family accused Dr. Juan Fernandez III of implanting false memories during hypnosis, leading her to believe she was sexually abused by her father, that she had more than 75 personalities and that her parents were members of a cult that forced others to have sex with animals and witness babies being killed and eaten.

Mrs. Hess, 47, the ex-wife of former Wausau Mayor John Hess, contended none of things brought up in the memories occurred, and the ordeal of believing that they did permanently harmed her.

She contended some of the personalities caused her to threaten suicide, forcing her to be hospitalized numerous times.

The jury awarded Mrs. Hess about $450,000 for past and future medical expenses and past and future pain and suffering. Each of her two daughters were awarded $190,000 and her ex-husband was awarded $31,500.

Smoler had told the jury his bill for expert testimony in the trial was $150,000. He declined to reveal how much in legal expenses would be paid from the $850,000.

"There certainly will be money left for that family. I can't tell you how much that is going to add up to," he said.

Fernandez's attorney, Tom Rusboldt, called the verdict disappointing and said he was unsure what the decision would mean to Fernandez's career. The state agency that licenses doctors will be notified of the verdict, Rusboldt said.

Fernandez, who started a private psychiatry practice in Wausau in 1991, declined to comment as he left the courtroom wearing a necktie that featured a drawing of Daffy Duck.

A decision will be made later on whether to appeal the verdict, Rusboldt said.

The jury answered eight questions, finding Fernandez was negligent in his diagnosis of Mrs. Hess' emotional problems, in his failure to explain the riskiness of his treatment of her, including that any memories that were recovered could be false, and in getting her consent for it.

Repressed-memory therapy contends victims of childhood trauma can forget the abuse for decades and later be cured of adult disorders by recovering their memories of the trauma.

Fernandez began caring for Mrs. Hess in 1991 by monitoring the medication she was taking to treat depression while she was getting counseling from another therapist because of stress in her marriage and at work.

Fernandez eventually authorized several hospitalizations for Mrs. Hess because she was suicidal and he took over her care, including hypnosis. The care continued until 1994.

The trial featured more than 1,000 exhibits, including thousands of pages of medical notes by Fernandez and writings by Mrs. Hess in a journal.

Smoler predicted the verdict would help Mrs. Hess put her life back together.

"How could Joan not have had questions about how did this happen and why did this happen," the attorney said. "I think that has been explained to her. I hope that means there will be some closure and she can understand it wasn't just herself going crazy."

Smoler said some managed health care companies now refuse to accept psychiatrists who use recovered-memory therapy, do hypnosis and have patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.

"You ought not to do this kind of therapy. Period," he said.

Recovered Memory a Pandoras Box?