By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Ani Chopourian lost track of how many complaints she filed during the two years she worked as a physician assistant at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital.
There were at least 18, she recalled, many having to do with the bullying surgeon who 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. Yet another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, asking if she had joined al-Qaida.
Managers from Mercy General, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West, told a Sacramento trial court that it was Chopourian who was guilty of professional misconduct, which was why they fired her and tried to deny her unemployment benefits.
But in a stunning rebuke of the hospital’s side of the story, a jury on Wednesday awarded Chopourian $168 million in damages, 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,” said Lawrance Bohm, Chopourian’s attorney during the three-week trial in which witness after witness depicted a culture of vulgarity and arrogance they said humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.
Chopourian, 45, worked at four other hospitals in New England and California before joining the cardiovascular surgical team at Mercy General in August 2006. Two years later, she was fired days after filing the last of her complaints about patient care and the doctors’ demeaning behavior.
Preening cardiac surgeons and locker-room humor weren’t unique to the Sacramento hospital’s operating rooms or those at another Catholic Healthcare West facility where she occasionally worked, Chopourian said in an interview.
“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 the Los Angeles native, who earned her physician assistant credentials at the Yale School of Medicine in 1999.
The jurors in U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller’s courtroom heard hospital administrators defend their management practices and attest to unwavering commitment to quality patient care.
But the litany of abuses detailed by current and former employees apparently swayed the jury to accept Chopourian’s allegations that administrators put up with gross misbehavior in the cardiac unit to stroke the surgeons’ outsize egos.
“Cardiac surgery brings in the most money for any hospital facility, which is why they are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal and inappropriate behavior,” Chopourian said. “We had four very strong witnesses who were frightened to speak out but did so because they felt it was important that someone put a stop to this.”
Bohm conceded that the record judgment — $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish — could be reduced on appeal or in settlement talks to avoid what would likely be a protracted challenge to the generous award. But he said he was confident the jury’s judgment against the hospital chain would survive appellate review.
Mercy General President Denny Powell said the hospital stood by its decision to fire Chopourian and would appeal the verdict.
“We are disappointed by the jury’s decision. We are committed to providing a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior,” Powell said in a statement issued Thursday. “Any complaint is thoroughly investigated and prompt action is taken. We do not believe that the facts support this verdict or judgment.”
Catholic Healthcare West, which recently changed its name to Dignity Health, operates 40 hospitals and care centers in California, Arizona and Nevada.