Christian Science Church sued over boy's death from diabetes

July 20, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The death four years ago of an 11-year-old boy was recounted in agonizing, hour-by-hour detail for a Hennepin County jury that is deciding a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the Christian Science Church.

It is believed to be the first wrongful-death case ever to go to trial anywhere in the country against the 114-year-old Boston-based church, which teaches that illness and injury can be cured through prayer.

Ian Lundman died May 9, 1989, of a diabetic coma at the home of his mother and stepfather, Kathleen and William McKown.

Yesterday, attorney James Kaster told jurors the diabetes Ian suffered from could have been easily diagnosed and successfully treated if he had been taken to a doctor even as late as two hours before his death.

Instead, Mr. Kaster said, Kathleen McKown relied on the prayers of a Christian Science practitioner to try to save the boy during a four-day ordeal that progressed from a stomach ache to repeated vomiting and uncontrollable urination, and finally to the coma that caused his death.

"Had he received insulin, he would have survived and he would be living the normal life of a teen-age boy today," Mr. Kaster said in his opening statement in the case.

Today, attorneys for the seven defendants were to make their opening statements.

Kathleen and William McKown were charged with second-degree manslaughter in connection with Ian's death in 1989. The charge later was dismissed because of a state law that says parents are not guilty of child neglect if they rely in good faith on "spiritual means" of treatment for medical problems.

Hennepin County District Judge Sean Rice ruled yesterday that the seven defendants may not use that criminal statute to try to prove they acted reasonably in their care of Ian.

The lawsuit, for damages in excess of $50,000, is being brought by Ian's estate. The trustee of the estate, and the driving force behind the litigation, is Ian's father, Douglass, a Minneapolis architect.

The stakes in the case for the Christian Science Church are high, both in dollars and reputation.

Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who has waged a 15-year campaign to force regulation of Christian Science treatment since her own child died of meningitis, said a verdict against the church would be a first.

Ms. Swan, who lives in Iowa, went to the U.S. Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to sue the church over her child's death.

"Potentially, it could open the doors to a new class of litigation," Ms. Swan said of the suit.

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