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.