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Parents awarded $1 million in suit claiming therapists created false memories of abuse

Parents awarded $1 million in suit claiming therapists created false memories of abuse

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A Dane County jury has awarded $1 million to a former Madison couple who claimed therapists created in their daughter false memories of childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Jurors early Sunday found two of the three therapists who treated Charlotte Johnson in the early 1990s professionally negligent, said attorney Bill Smoler, who represented her parents, Dr. Charles and Karen Johnson.

The couple, now of St. Louis, had been accused by their daughter of being Satanists and incest perpetrators. Charlotte Johnson had come to believe that her father had raped her at age 3, that her mother had come after her with a knife and tried to drown her, and that the family dabbled in cults and infanticide, said Smoler, who termed the alleged memories "outrageous."

The jury assigned 70 percent of the negligence to therapist Jeff Hollowell, who formerly practiced at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, and 30 percent of the negligence to Madison therapist Kay Phillips, Smoler said.

Therapist Tim Reisenauer, who also practiced at Rogers Memorial Hospital, was found not negligent. Rogers Memorial Hospital, also sued by the parents, settled out of court prior to the verdict, Smoler said.

The verdict, which came at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, followed a two-week trial and 10 hours of deliberations.

"They're delighted. They feel vindicated," Smoler said of the parents.

Smoler blamed recovered memory therapy, a controversial approach in which therapists attempt to help patients reclaim supposedly repressed memories. "Juries have routinely said it's not valid," he said Sunday. "It's wacko stuff."

Attorneys for the defendants said in court their clients did not practice recovered memory therapy. The therapists and their attorneys could not be reached Sunday.

Smoler said Charlotte Johnson lives in Madison but has not had contact with her parents since 1993. She opposed the lawsuit and did not appear in court.

The Johnsons are retired. Dr. Charles Johnson is a former Madison physician who also served as chief of medical staff at a St. Louis hospital. Karen Johnson is a former nurse.

"This case was not about money - they don't need it," Smoler said of the elder Johnsons. "This case was about letting Charlotte know, ‘This wasn't your fault. We still love you.' They want her to come home."

In their closing statements Saturday, attorneys for the defendants argued Charlotte Johnson's memories of sexual and physical abuse predated contact with the therapists being sued.

Before she sought help from any of the providers in the lawsuit, Johnson had been suicidal, contacted the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, received five months of psychiatric care for "family issues" and endured an "extreme flashback" of being abused by her mother that sent her screaming under a desk, said attorney David McFarlane, who represented Phillips.

No one is saying all of Johnson's memories are true, McFarlane told the jury Saturday. Rather, the case hinged on whether therapists met a professional standard of care, he said. Phillips not only didn't suggest any memories to Johnson but probably saved her life, he said.

Attorney Bradway Liddle said Hollowell, far from implanting memories in Johnson, challenged her memory of childhood rape. In general, the therapists sought to get to the bottom of the woman's problems, he said.


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