Estate of Jack Slee v. Werner Erhard
Slee v. Erhard is a legal case that was filed in 1984 against Werner Erhard, his company Werner Erhard and Associates (WE&A), and an instructor for Erhard Seminars Training (est), by the executor of the estate of Jack Slee. The jury ruled against the plaintiff and found that the defendants did not cause Slee's death. Slee was a graduate of the University of Connecticut who worked as a bank manager when he registered for the est training in 1983. On his registration form for the est training Slee wrote that he wanted to work on nervousness interacting with strangers in a group setting. He attended the seminar at the Park Plaza Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 14, 1983. After participating in a 16-hour session of the est training, Slee collapsed during a portion of the seminar known as "the danger process". He was transported by emergency workers to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was declared dead by medical doctors due to "undetermined causes".
An autopsy was performed on August 16, 1983, but was unable to determine cause of death. New Haven police investigated the death, but were unable to find evidence of foul play. In November 1983, the office of the Connecticut state medical examiner issued a report stating that Slee's death may have been related to stress. The police investigation into the matter was closed the same month.
In September 1984, Jack Slee's mother filed a US$5 million wrongful death lawsuit against Erhard and his company. The suit asserted that mental stress from the est training, including mind control techniques, psychological and group pressures resulted in the death of her son. On September 21, 1984, representatives of Erhard denied that the est training was involved in Slee's death. The case was held in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, and was presided over by Judge José A. Cabranes. In October 1992, a jury ruled that Erhard and his company had been negligent, and were responsible for severe emotional distress suffered by Slee. However, the jury found that the defendants "did not proximately cause" Slee's death. Slee's estate did not receive any monetary award. The plaintiffs appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where the decision of the lower court was affirmed.
Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg), a California-based former salesman, training manager and executive in the encyclopedia business, created the Erhard Seminars Training (est) course in 1971. est was a form of Large Group Awareness Training, and was part of the Human Potential Movement. est was a four-day, 60-hour self-help program given to groups of 250 people at a time. The program was very intensive: each day would contain 15–20 hours of instruction. During the training, est personnel utilized jargon to convey key concepts, and participants had to agree to certain rules that remained in effect for the duration of the course. Participants were taught that they were responsible for their life outcomes, and were promised a dramatic change in their self-perception. est was controversial. While some critics characterized the training methods as brainwashing, proponents and participants asserted that it had a profoundly positive impact on people's lives. By 1984 nearly half a million people had completed the est training, including public figures and mental health professionals.
Erhard Seminars Training incident
At the time of his est seminar in 1984, Jack Slee was a 26-year-old a resident of Montville, Connecticut. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1978. He was accepted to the University of Vermont's law school but instead chose to focus on job opportunities within the financial sector. After getting experience at a loan company, he gained employment at the Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank of Middletown, Connecticut. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to the position of manager of a new local branch of the bank.
In Spring 1983, two of Slee's friends introduced him to the est training. After attending a "guest seminar" in May 1983 in New Haven, Connecticut, Slee paid a US$50 deposit fee to reserve a spot in the est training. One of his stated goals on his registration form was to "Relieve current difficulty in interacting with unknown people in a group setting, whether social or business meeting." Members of Slee's family later told the media that he was attempting to work on increasing his self-confidence.
Slee collapsed during the est training seminar after participating in a 16-hour session. He fell backwards while standing on stage with other est participants, during a part of the training known as "the danger process" or "fear confront", which had started at approximately 11:30 P.M. that night. During this process, Slee was supposed to confront his fear of standing in front of a group of individuals. An est graduate whose role was called a "body catcher" or "people catcher" broke Slee's fall and then went to get help. Assistants in the est training discovered that Slee was not breathing, and attempted to resuscitate him. While individuals were attempting to revive Slee, est trainer David Norris asked the est assistants to help keep the participants in their seats to remain calm.
Responders and paramedics from a local New Haven fire department arrived at the hotel, and paramedic Daniel Dolphin stated that a woman met him and his crewmember outside the hotel and escorted them inside. "People were laughing. They were crying. My first impression was that it was a comedy show and the guy who was lying on the stage was faking it," said Dolphin in a statement to the New Haven Journal-Courier. Dolphin's ambulance partner, Tony Deluise of the New Haven Ambulance Company, said to the Boston Phoenix that he witnessed odd behavior while responding to Slee: "They were all in seats, just sitting there and facing the stage, like an audience. Most were quiet; a few you could hear crying, a few laughing."
Paramedics removed Slee from the ballroom prior to midnight, and transported him to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Meanwhile in the est training, instructor David Norris requested that participants "share" their thoughts on what had just transpired. At 1:03 A.M., Slee was declared dead by physicians at Yale-New Haven Hospital due to "undetermined causes".
A preliminary autopsy was carried out on Slee's body the night of his death – no medical cause of death was found. The pathologist reported Slee's death to the police as "suspicious". A formal autopsy was performed on Slee on August 16, 1983, but the results were inconclusive and did not determine his cause of death.
New Haven police detective Donald Maher told the Norwich Bulletin on August 19, 1983, that police were investigating Slee's death, as was customary. Maher stated that police did not suspect criminal activity was involved in Slee's death. On August 19, 1983, UPI reported that New Haven detective Daniel Onofrio believed further investigation would be needed in order to determine why Slee died, and said "At this point we don't know of anything criminal, but the death has the medical examiners stumped." Police were unable to find evidence of foul play involved in Slee's death.
In November 1983, the office of the Connecticut state medical examiner issued a report stating that Slee's death may have been related to stress. The report stated: "This 26-year-old male reportedly collapsed during a group meeting described as a self-improvement seminar. A complete autopsy determined no anatomic cause of death. ... Available history indicates that Mr. Slee collapsed in a situation in which high emotional stress could be expected. Such emotional stress may have neural and hormonal effects that are deleterious to cardiac rhythm." The New Haven Register reported that Chief Medical Examiner Catherine Galvin said that "arrhythmia, an electrical malfunction of the heart, is believed to have been the cause of Slee's death, but it couldn't be verified". Galvin said that stressful situations can cause such an arrhythmia: "In a stress situation you've got adrenalin pumping into the circulation. That can trigger it." According to the Boston Phoenix, the pathologist that had examined Slee's body stated: "I don’t like the word 'fright', but there are recognized entities of sudden death", though it may not be possible to determine the cause, "where emotions come into play" such as an instance where an individual believes that a curse will harm them. On November 19, 1983, the New Haven Register reported that police were "no longer actively investigating the case", and went on to note that therefore "any connection between Slee's death and his experiences at the seminar" were not likely to be confirmed.
Response from est officials
A representative of WE&A named Nancy Foushee denied reports that paramedics were delayed from giving care to Kruh and Slee. Foushee stated that attendants of the est training are permitted to take breaks every four-hours, during the 16-hour session. Foushee described the est training course, which consisted of four sessions each of 16 hours in duration, as a "philosophical inquiry into what it is to be human". She asserted that the est training was "no more stressful than taking a philosophy course at a university". In a statement published in the Boston Phoenix, Foushee said: "We do not run a company that's dangerous to people. The est training does not cause people to faint. There has never been a death attributed to est. Never. Ever. Are you clear?"
Days after Slee's death, an official from the est organization released a statement that est was not involved in Slee's death. Jack Mantos, a medical doctor who served as director of research for est, stated: "In any large group of people, medical emergencies do arise from time to time and this appears to be one of those. According to our reports, it was responded to quickly by trained professionals. Paramedics were notified within seconds of the collapse and were by [Slee's] side in minutes. Although medical authorities have not yet determined what caused Mr. Slee's death, it is evident that the est training could not have had anything to do with it."
Wrongful death lawsuit
In September 1984, Jack Slee's mother Alfrieda Slee filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court for $5 million against Erhard and WE&A. Causes of action brought in the complaint included negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, implied warranty, express warranty, fraud, strict liability and unfair trade practices. The suit asserted that mental stress from the est training resulted in the death of her son. Erhard's company (WE&A), as well as est trainer Steve Zafflin were named in the suit. The suit stated that Slee had been "subjected to psychological pressures, group pressures ... mind control techniques which caused him to lose his ordinary psychological defenses, emotional confrontations which caused him to become emotionally distraught and which led to physical reactions resulting in his death".
According to the lawyer representing Slee's estate, Gerald Ragland, Slee had "dropped dead from the stress associated with the program". Ragland, a specialist in lawsuits dealing with claims related to psychological trauma from encounter groups, noted that though autopsies cannot specifically test for death caused by stress, circumstantial evidence in the case would show this occurred with regard to Slee. Ragland further stated that Slee was pressured into taking the course, that he endured mind control that reduced his capacity for mental defense, and that est trainers prevented medical professionals from quickly gaining access to his body.
On September 21, 1984, representatives of Werner Erhard told the Associated Press that they were not yet in possession of a copy of the lawsuit. However, they denied that the est training was involved in the death of Slee.
Case, jury ruling and appeal
Judge José A. Cabranes presided over the case in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. In order to defeat a defense motion to dismiss the case in 1987, the plaintff called a number of expert witnesses including psychologist Margaret Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, and psychiatrist and neurologist James Merikangas. Both Singer and Merikangas submitted affidavits asserting that Slee's death was related to the est training. After the defendants refused to respond to discovery requests, on January 18, 1990, the plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment, for failure of the defendants to comply with discovery, which was denied. In 1991, before the case came to trial, defendant Erhard left the country. In 1992, a jury heard the wrongful death lawsuit. During the trial, the defendants called a number of expert witnesses, including medical experts.
A jury decision was reached in the case on October 9, 1992. The jury found Werner Erhard and his company Werner Erhard and Associates negligent. They ruled that the defendants were responsible for causing severe emotional distress to Slee. However, the jury also ruled that the defendants "did not proximately cause" Slee's death, and no monetary damages were awarded to Slee's estate. On January 25, 1993, the trial court issued an order denying Slee’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the jury verdict or a new trial. The plaintiff appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where Judges Jon O. Newman, Roger Miner, and Joseph M. McLaughlin ruled to affirm the decision of the lower court. The Court of Appeals ruling was issued on September 8, 1993.
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- Negligent infliction of emotional distress
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