More Recovered Memory Woes

LAST THURSDAY, FOLLOWING what participants called the longest psychiatric malpractice trial in U.S. history, a Ramsey County jury awarded more than $2.3 million to a former patient of Dr. Diane Humenansky, the St. Paul psychiatrist featured in a City Pages cover story last summer ("Spellbound," 8/23). The trial was Humenansky's second regarding her "recovered memory" treatment practices, and the malpractice award was the second largest ever in a case of this sort--exceeded only by the $2.6 million that Vynnette Hamanne, another of Humenansky's clients, was awarded last year.

Elizabeth Carlson underwent treatment with Humenansky for nearly two years before she quit therapy in 1991. According to Carlson, Humenansky convinced her she suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder and was the victim of severe sexual and satanic cult abuse. The trial began in October of last year; Carlson was represented by Edward Glennon and R. Christopher Barden, the same set of attorneys from the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist and Vennum who litigated the first case against Humenansky. (The defense filed an appeal in that case, and Humenansky's insurers filed for a declaratory judgment in hopes of forestalling any further financial obligations.)

While the claims of Carlson and the legal strategies of her counsel bore similarities to the Hamanne trial, Humenansky's defense was more aggressive in tone. Her attorney, David Patton, took a more adversarial approach than his predecessors, and called a number of experts to the stand. (He failed, however, to make good on a promise to produce Bennett Braun, probably the best known proponent of MPD and satanic abuse therapies; the reason for Braun's non-appearance was barred from courtroom testimony.)

As the weeks turned into months, jurors and spectators heard intimate details regarding Carlson's life and marriage and listened to scientific evidence about hypnosis, MPD, and the workings of memory. During one of the trial's odder interludes, the courtroom became a screening room when Carlson's attorneys showed clips of videos they claim Humenansky ordered her clients to watch: a porn film called Three Daughters, the Wes Craven horror movie The Serpent & the Rainbow (highlighted by Humenansky, they claimed, for its anti-Catholicism), and the notorious Faces of Death video, depicting a series of fatal car accidents, decapitations, and alleged murder scenes.

In closing arguments, Glennon suggested that Humenansky committed "perjury after perjury," and recited the first part of the Hippocratic Oath--"Do No Harm"--to lend weight to the plaintiff's position that Humenansky's treatment practices were not only unorthodox but also inflicted serious emotional and psychological harm. His asking price for his client: $4.5 million. Patton, on the other hand, disputed any wrongdoing on the part of Humenansky. "The mere fact that treatment is not successful does not make the doctor negligent," he stated. He depicted Carlson as a woman with a history of serious mental and emotional problems, and maintained that she was no worse off now than when she consulted with Humenansky. After nine days of deliberation, the jury came back with its award; in addition to Carlson's $2.3 million, they doled out $150,000 to her husband for loss of companionship.

Despite two multi-million-dollar awards and a line of plaintiffs seeking retribution, Humenansky steadfastly denies she acted outside the bounds of her profession. According to Helen Patrikus, a medical regulations analyst with the Board of Medical practices, Humenansky can continue her practice as there are "no current restrictions on her license." While Humenansky is free to continue treating patients, experts speculate she will soon deplete her insurance coverage and thus get pushed out of business. Unless Humenansky and her insurers opt to settle out of court, a third trial--Rohricht vs. Humenansky--is slated for June of this year.

 
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