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Appeals court upholds dismissal of wrongful death suit against Church of Scientology

Published Sep. 21, 2012

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of an aggressively contested wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Church of Scientology and three parishioners after the apparent suicide of a Virginia man who died while visiting his Scientologist father in Clearwater.

Kyle Brennan, 20, of Charlottesville, Va., shot himself the night of Feb. 16, 2007, with a handgun he found in his father's apartment, Clearwater police determined.

Thomas Brennan, a handyman who also sold Scientology books at the State Fairgrounds in Tampa, told police he found his son after returning from work.

Kyle Brennan's mother, Victoria Britton, also of Charlottesville, sued in 2009 in Tampa federal court on behalf of her son's estate. The suit contended that during Kyle Brennan's visit — the final leg of a two-month, cross-country trip —Thomas Brennan told his Scientology counselor, Clearwater resident Denise Gentile, that Kyle was taking the antidepression drug Lexapro.

Scientologists strongly oppose psychiatry and psychotropic drugs. Kyle Brennan was not a Scientologist, nor is Britton.

Gentile and her husband, Gerald Gentile, and Thomas Brennan tried convincing Britton that her son should enter a Scientology-affiliated Narconon drug treatment facility, according to court papers. Britton refused.

A church ethics officer then told Thomas Brennan to direct his son to leave the apartment and to "handle'' him according to Scientology policy, records say. Thomas Brennan locked his son's Lexapro in the trunk of his car. Kyle Brennan was dead within 24 hours.

Britton's suit, which named Thomas Brennan and both Gentiles as defendants, alleged they acted without regard to Kyle's safety and that Brennan wrongfully withdrew medically necessary Lexapro.

After reams of court filings and hours of depositions, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday granted a church motion to dismiss last December. He cited a lack of evidence on key points: the frequency with which Kyle took his Lexapro, whether stopping it produced an adverse effect and whether Kyle's father took the Lexapro without Kyle's permission.

Three judges with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Merryday's ruling Tuesday after hearing brief oral arguments Friday in Jacksonville from Clearwater lawyers Luke Lirot, representing Britton, and Robert V. Potter, for the church.

Britton did not return calls seeking comment.

Clearwater-based church spokeswoman Pat Harney said: "The ruling of the U. S. District Court in Tampa and the rapid affirmation of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta both confirm what we have said from the beginning — the evidence is overwhelming that the Brennan lawsuit never had any factual or legal basis.''

Joe Childs can be reached at childs@tampabay.com. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@tampabay.com.

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