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Father Wins Suit in 'False Memory' Case

May 14, 1994|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a landmark case that could fundamentally alter how therapists do their jobs--and could increase their liability--a Napa Valley Superior Court jury ruled Friday that two Orange County therapists implanted false memories of child abuse in a patient and wrongly harmed her father.

The jury decided on a 10-2 vote that therapist Marche Isabella, Dr. Richard Rose, chief of psychiatry at Western Medical Center in Anaheim, and the hospital were negligent in their treatment of Holly Ramona, now 23. It awarded her father $500,000 in damages.

The case has received national attention because it marks the first time that a court has allowed a therapist to be sued for implanting false memories. It has been at the forefront of debate over recovered memory therapy, the most divisive issue to hit the mental health profession in decades.

Gary Ramona, who Holly said repeatedly raped her between the ages of 5 and 8, has been "totally vindicated" by the decision, the father's attorney, Richard Harrington, said in an interview Friday night.

"They found that the memories that Gary Ramona molested Holly Ramona were false," Harrington said. "F-A-L-S-E. False. And they found that these defendants were negligent, which they were."

Rose called the decision "a very strange verdict." Hospital representatives said they were not aware of the verdict.

But the jury did not award Gary Ramona the $8 million that he sought in damages and lost wages. Instead, the panel granted Ramona $250,000 for wages lost to date and $250,000 for future losses. When the incest allegations surfaced in 1990, Ramona lost his $400,000-a-year job as a vice president for worldwide marketing at Robert Mondavi Winery, and his family fell apart.

"This is a tremendous victory," Gary Ramona said Friday. "This verdict means that the jury saw what I've always known: that Holly's supposed memories are the result of defendants' drugs and quackery, not anything I did."

Stephanie Ramona, who has since divorced her husband, has stood by her daughter and the therapists who treated her. "I don't think he should have gotten a penny for raping his own daughter," she said.

Holly Ramona's suspicions that she may have been molested surfaced in early 1990, when she was receiving therapy for depression and bulimia while attending UC Irvine. She testified during the trial that the memories were triggered by a trip back home in 1989, a Christmas excursion during which her father looked at her in a sexual fashion.

During a shopping trip to Palm Springs with her mother and grandmother, Holly Ramona said in court, she had the first of several flashbacks, the image of her father's hand on her stomach. Later, she testified, she had a memory in which "I was on a bed, there was a lot of light and a white sheet. My father was on top of me. His penis was inside me."

"I didn't want to believe them," Ramona testified. But "I wouldn't be here if there was a question in my mind. My father molested me."

Gary Ramona, and a cadre of expert witnesses who testified on his behalf during the nearly two-month trial, contended that Isabella implanted the memories in a vulnerable girl's mind and used the hypnotic drug sodium amytal to prove to her that the images were true.

While under the influence of the drug, which Rose administered, Holly Ramona recounted multiple episodes of abuse, although her descriptions were sketchy. Afterward, Isabella reportedly called the young woman's mother and said, "It's rape."

Dr. Park Elliott Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist hired by Gary Ramona, testified that Isabella's conclusion was an "outrageous misrepresentation" and that Isabella and Rose failed to follow standards for acceptable therapeutic care.

On Friday, Dietz said the case was important because "while there's much in place to regulate the use of surgery and medication and electroshock and other powerful treatments, there has been little to constrain the use of psychotherapeutic techniques that are equally powerful."

"And this should at least give therapists pause before wreaking havoc with patients' minds or memory and the lives of all around them."

Steven Gold, a licensed marriage and family counselor in the Santa Cruz area who has written on mental health issues, said he was not surprised by the verdict, which he characterized as a wake-up call for therapists.

"It's a matter for mental health professionals to look at the issues and find better ways of diagnosing and assessing childhood molestation," Gold said. "It opens up a big question. That's the importance of the case--to re-evaluate our assessment tools and come up with better ways of handling those cases."

Harrington, Gary Ramona's attorney, was more blunt in his view of the verdict: "It tells health care professionals that they're supposed to be properly trained and not tell lies to their patients about what medications can do and cannot do," he said. "Sodium amytal is not truth serum."

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