Record $168 Million Sexual Harassment Award

Hospital Ignored 18 Complaints

Ani Chopourian filed at least 18 harassment complaints with the Human Resources Dept. during the two years she worked as a physician assistant at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital.

They were all but ignored until last week, when a federal court jury awarded her $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of sexual harassment in U.S. history.

Many of her complaints involved a bullying surgeon who she said once stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized heart patient in a fit of rage.. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, asking if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Ms. Chopourian, 45, was fired from the Mercy General, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West, a few days after her last complaint about patient care and doctors’ demeaning behavior. The hospital then tried to deny her unemployment benefits, claiming she had missed a shift and was found sleeping on the job.  She worked there from 2006 to 2008.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a three-week trial in the case included a parade of witnesses who depicted a culture of vulgarity and arrogance which humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.

Ms. Chopourian, who earned her physician assistant credentials at Yale School of Medicine,  is quoted as saying “the environment at Mercy General, the sexually inappropriate conduct and the patient care issues being ignored, the bullying and intimidation and retaliation —– I have never seen an environment so hostile and pervasive.”.

Chopourian also said administrators put up with misbehavior in the cardiac unit and the surgeons outsize egos because cardiac surgery brings in the most money for any hospital facility.

Shortly before rendering its verdict the jury sent a note to District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller asking for a calculator. The record judgment includes $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish.

Hospital President Denny Powell said the hospital stood by its decision to fire Chopourian and would appeal the verdict.

Clearly, this case demonstrates employers must respond appropriately when employees complain of harassment. Such complaints  must be fully investigated by someone experienced in workplace harassment issues. And if a complaint is deemed to have merit, the harassing conduct must stop, even if that means getting rid of a cardiac surgeon or three.

Catholic Healthcare West, which recently changed its name to Dignity Health, operates 40 hospitals and care centers in California, Arizona and Nevada.

Comments

  1. Angela R. says:

    Hello. I used to work for Mercy Gen. downtown on J St. in Sacramento California from 2000 to 2001 and I was harassed by one of their nurses his name was Michael I do not remember the last name but when I filed a sexual harassment complaint also they seem to disregarded as if I was a lying it continued he would follow me into rooms while I was trying to take care of patients and asked me to have sex with him I would tell him that I was with someone that I was also pregnant he said that didn’t matter then he wouldn’t have to worry about me getting pregnant by him I went to my supervisor and explain to her that he was still doing the same thing I also found out he was having affairs with several different nurses on the floor how in the sound is the approach me and asked me if I was sleeping with him and I told him no and I told him what he had said to me when he was trying to do I was A new employee he had been working there for a while so they sided with him the next thing I know I am being fired when they fired me I was four months pregnant if there’s anyone out there that can help me get justice for that I would greatly appreciate it thank you and God bless

    • Hi Angela – Your message gives me the opportunity to reiterate that it is important to file a timely complaint. Generally, a victim of sexual harassment/retaliation must file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a year, if not sooner. Otherwise, they may be foreclosed from filing a lawsuit under the statute of limitations. I hope your devastating experience at Mercy serves to encourage others who are suffering from discrimination and harassment to file a timely complaint with the EEOC. I would also note that when an employer fails to heed complaints of this nature they invite tremendous risk to their reputation and their financial well-being.

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