DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - The family of a man who died while under the care of a local drug treatment facility won a huge court victory this week.
DeKalb County State Court Judge Stacey Hydrick issued sanctions against Narconon of Georgia, finding the program's director lied under oath and hid evidence.
"There's really nothing else that a judge can do that's stronger than what the judge has done here," said attorney Jeff Harris.
Harris is representing the family of Patrick Desmond, who died in 2008 after trying heroin for the first time.
Desmond was enrolled in Narconon of Georgia for alcohol addiction, but got drunk with a housing monitor, and left with two program flunkees. Later, the Desmonds found out the Gwinnett facility is only licensed as an outpatient program.
"It breaks my heart. He wasn't cared for. I feel the whole place was just a total fake scam," Patrick's mother, Colleen Desmond, told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer in September
. "We were assured all along the line , this was an inpatient situation."
During our investigation, we even caught Narconon's parent organization, Narconon International, advertising the program as residential on its website. The Desmonds say the Georgia program director, Mary Rieser, lied to them.
In September, Rieser disputed that saying, "I will never knowingly accept somebody here if I know they've been ordered inpatient, because we're not."
But Judge Hydrick's ruling says in hearings, Rieser's
"responses were patently false, " that Narconon of Georgia "repeatedly and willfully obstructed the discovery process," and even "falsely denied the existence of clearly relevant, responsive documents and information."
"If you can't get those documents and can't get that evidence, you can't prove your case. The only way to make the punishment fit the crime is to basically deem the case as being admitted as true," said Harris.
The judge ordered Narconon of Georgia's response to the initial complaint stricken from what the jury will be able to consider. That means the facility's attorneys cannot deny that it misrepresented itself, that it operated an illegal residential facility, and that negligence led to Patrick Desmond's death.
Harris says the ruling for sanctions is so strong, lawyers often refer to it as the civil
'death penalty. '
It doesn't bring Patrick back, but his parents say they don't want any other families misled.
"At the end of the day, they've still lost their son. But all they really wanted in this case was justice, and I think we're getting a lot closer to getting that," said Harris.
He said he will still introduce evidence to prove the level of damages he wants to the jury to award. He will also have to prove the claims made in a second complaint, which alleges racketeering, or a pattern of activity by Narconon of Georgia for financial gain.
Narconon of Georgia could still appeal the judge's ruling for sanctions before the trial in February, or after the verdict.
Fleischer's investigation also exposed how state inspectors had failed to crack down on the program for more than a decade.
The Department of Community Health has since opened a new investigation to review all of the evidence from the court case, including this new finding by the judge.