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March 5, 2003


Why did Jehovah's Witnesses pay the largest cash settlement in its history?

The largest settlement ever paid in the history of Jehovah's Witnesses occurred this past October, but no news outlet has yet reported it.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which is the umbrella organization over 6 million Witnesses worldwide, paid the estate of Frances Coughlin $1.55 million dollars rather than let a jury decide the wrongful death lawsuit.

Frances Coughlin's surviving family sued Jehovah's Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, in State of Connecticut Superior Court at Milford (CV-00-0072183 S).

The principle defendant was a "Bethelite," or full-time ministry worker, who drove recklessly in bad weather and killed Ms. Coughlin, a mother and grandmother, on October 8, 1998 .

That Bethelite Jordon Johnson was traveling between " Bethel ," which has housing for its full-time workers in P atterson , New Jersey and Brooklyn , New York , to a Witness Kingdom Hall he was assigned to in Derby , Connecticut .

Johnson was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter, but only served 30 days in jail and was sentenced to two years probation. Subsequently, he and Jehovah's Witnesses faced a civil suit filed by Ms. Coughlin's surviving family for damages.

Why was the Witness organization willing to pay more than $1.5 million dollars?

Apparently because a much larger issue of "agency" was at stake.

Agency is the word used to express a relationship between a principal party and its agent, through which the principal party projects its power and/or advances some purpose. And a principal party may be held liable for the actions of its agent.

Jehovah's Witnesses contended that Jordan Johnson acted on his own and was not their agent at the time he caused the fatal car wreck.

But plaintiff's counsel, Joel Faxon of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, claimed on his client's behalf that Jordan Johnson was serving as a Bethelite and agent of the organization at the time and advancing their purpose, therefore Jehovah's Witnesses was responsible for his actions.

Internal documents were obtained through the discovery process and testimony was given through depositions, which clarified and substantiated Faxon's view.

I was retained as an expert witness and consultant for this case by the plaintiff's counsel.

My role was to assist in the discovery process, provide research and generally help to form a basis for an understanding of how Jehovah's Witnesses employ, use and control Bethelites and others within their organization. Ultimately, I would have also testified as an expert in court.

That testimony would have included explaining in clear terms how the organizational dynamics, indoctrination and objectives of Jehovah's Witnesses impact individual members and more specifically full-time workers such as Bethelite Jordan Johnson.

But on the first day of trial Jehovah's Witnesses decided they didn't want a jury to decide this case and instead $1.55 million was paid to the plaintiff.

The organization that claims it is waiting for the ever-eminent "end of the world" decided to settle in a pragmatic move to protect its long-term interests and more than $1 billion dollars of accumulated assets.

Again, why would the Witnesses do this if they actually believed they had no meaningful liability?

Certainly the cost to complete the case in court would be far less than $1.55 million dollars. Why not let the jury decide?

But the seemingly shrewd Witnesses rea
lized that there was just too much at stake and didn't want to risk a "guilty" verdict.

Currently the organization known as Jehovah's Witnesses faces a growing number of lawsuits filed by former members who feel the organization has hurt them.

The personal injuries were allegedly caused by elders and others acting in accor
dan ce with the organization's policies and doctrines, which include such matters as blood transfusions and sexual abuse.

Seemingly to protect its assets the Watchtower Society of Jehovah's Witnesses and its many Kingdom Hall congregations have in recent years created a myriad of corporate entities to apparently contain liability.

That is, each corporation is seemingly only responsible for its own specific actions and not the action of others. Again, this appears to be a rather pragmatic legal approach to protect the assets amassed by Jehovah's Witnesses over more than a century.

But what if Jehovah's Witnesses are nevertheless responsible or liable for the actions of its agents, which would include elders and others throughout its vast network of districts and Kingdom Halls?

Well, now you can see why the check was likely cut for $1.55 million in the Coughlin case.

Jehovah's Witnesses were apparently concerned about what legal precedent a jury might set that could ultimately affect other claims pending or potentially possible in the future against the organization.

Many people seem to think that Jehovah's Witnesses or the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is focused on the end of the world and a coming kingdom. At least that's the impression many have when its members come knocking at the door.

But through the Coughlin case a different view of the organization emerges, which looks more like a business protecting its worldly assets and focused on the bottom line.

Rick Ross