Former Physician's Assistant Awarded Record $168 Million In Lawsuit
A California physician's assistant and her attorney are claiming victory after a federal jury awarded the woman $168 million as compensation for the hostile work environment that she says she endured at a Sacramento hospital.
As The Sacramento Bee reports, Ani Chopourian alleges that she was also repeatedly sexually harassed during the two years she worked at Mercy General Hospital as a cardiac surgeon's assistant, a position that ended in 2008 with her dismissal on grounds of alleged misconduct.
Chopourian told the newspaper that she lost count of the number of complaints that she filed with human resources, but said there were at least 18. She also detailed incidents that included a surgeon greeting her each morning with, "I'm horny," and slapping her rear.
"I was slapped on the backside and grabbed repeatedly, sometimes in front of supervisors. When I said, 'Do something,' they would laugh," Chopourian told Sacramento TV station KXTV.
Chopourian eventually documented the abuse and mailed the complaint to HR. A week later, she was fired.
During the trial which ended Wednesday, hospital managers alleged that it was Chopourian who was guilty of professional misconduct, which was why they fired her and sought to deny her unemployment benefits.
The jury, however, sided with Chopourian, awarding the 45-year-old Los Angeles native $168 million in damages. The Los Angeles Times reports that the amount is believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.
"They were just shocked by the whole workplace environment," Lawrance Bohm, Chopourian's attorney, told the Times. During the three-week trial, witness after witness depicted a culture of vulgarity and arrogance that they said humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.
Mercy General is one of 40 hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona operated by Catholic Healthcare West -- now Dignity Health -- employing some 7,000 people.
Chopourian told the Times that tasteless behavior wasn't unique to Mercy General's operating rooms or another Catholic Healthcare West facility where she occasionally worked.
"But 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," said Chopourian, a graduate of Yale University's medical school.
In a statement provided to the media, Mercy General President Denny Powell said the hospital would appeal the court's decision. "We do not believe that the facts support this verdict or judgment," it said. "We stand by the actions we took in ending our relationship with this former employee."
Powell's statement said the hospital was committed to providing and has policies ensuring a safe work environment that excludes sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. "Any complaint is thoroughly investigated and prompt action is taken," it added.
Jurors, however, didn't see it that way, Bohm told the Bee, telling him after the verdict that they were "appalled by Dignity's lack of managerial response and accountability, and by the obvious hostility and sexual environment in the cardiovascular surgery department."
Bohm called the jury verdict "total vindication" of the accusations made against Chopourian by Mercy General management.
Still, he acknowledged that the $168 million award, which includes $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish, could be reduced on appeal or in settlement to end further litigation.
But, Bohm told the Times, he was confident the jury's judgment against the hospital chain would survive appellate review.
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David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.
Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.
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