The Washington Times
‘Recovered-memory’ suit yields large jury award
By Cheryl Wetzstein
September 04, 1999

Psychiatrist Juan Fernandez III

Psychiatrist Juan Fernandez III

A Wisconsin woman who accused her psychiatrist of making her think she had dozens of multiple personalities and had been sexually abused by her father was awarded more than $860,000 by a jury this week.

The medical malpractice case was hailed as a victory for those who believe that “recovered-memory” therapy is false and destructive.

“This is a vindication (that) this craziness was not her fault,” said William Smoler, the attorney who represented Joan Hess, 47, of Wausau, Wis., in the 15-week trial before the Marathon County jury.

Mr. Smoler said yesterday that the Hess family has reconciled and Mrs. Hess is now especially attentive to her father, who is dying of cancer.

Mrs. Hess testified that her psychiatrist, Juan Fernandez III, implanted memories during hypnosis that led her to believe she was raped, had more than 75 personalities and, with her parents, neighbors and friends, was part of a “satanic ritual cult” that engaged in bestiality and human sacrifice.

Mrs. Hess said that none of these events occurred, and that she was permanently harmed by the ordeal.

The trial drew testimony from top mental health professionals who either supported or discounted the validity of repressed-memory therapy, hypnosis, and multiple personality disorder.

Dr. Fernandez’s attorneys argued that he had done “what good psychiatrists do.”

“He followed his training and he followed the textbook,” said defense attorney Paul Grimstad, adding that Dr. Fernandez never suggested any of the memories that Mrs. Hess reported.

Even before Mrs. Hess was hypnotized, Mr. Grimstad said, “she had a feeling there was something bad in her background, something bad in the past . . . she was desperate to get to the bottom of her memories, to the bottom of her childhood.”

However, after 25 hours of deliberation, the jury ruled that Dr. Fernandez was negligent in his diagnosis and treatment of Mrs. Hess and that he did not get consent for the therapy or explain that recovered memories could be false.

The jury awarded Mrs. Hess $450,000, her two daughters $190,000 each, and her ex-husband John Hess, the former mayor of Wausau, $31,500.

Defense attorney Tom Rusboldt said he was unsure about an appeal or what the decision would mean to Dr. Fernandez’s career.

The state agency that licenses medical professionals would be notified of the verdict, he said.

“It was an egregious form of malpractice,” said Dr. Paul R. McHugh , director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who testified on behalf of Mrs. Hess.

Dr. Fernandez’s regimen of “hypnosis, suggestion and inadequate treatment . . . ultimately debased the whole process of psychotherapy,” said Dr. McHugh.

Pamela Freyd, executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), said the case was “quite significant” because top medical professionals testified on behalf of Dr. Fernandez “and they did not prevail.”

The FMSF, founded in 1992 in Philadelphia to assist families who believe they have been falsely accused of abuse, knows of at least 140 other cases where patients have sued their therapists, said Mrs. Freyd, adding that in another case, the patient was awarded more than $2 million.

Many mental health professionals believe that victims of childhood sexual abuse, ritual abuse and physical trauma can “repress” those memories. The repression manifests itself in various mental disorders, including multiple personalities. The key to resolving the adult disorders is to “recover” the traumatic memories, these professionals maintain.

The American Psychological Association has studied the therapy but has not taken a position on it, an APA spokesman said yesterday.


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Juan Fernandez