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A Management Failure That Could Cost $168 Million

Ani Chopourian, a physician assistant, filed at least 18 complaints about male surgeons during the two years she worked at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital. All of them were initially ignored.

A jury, however, decidedly did not ignore Chopourian’s complaints. Jurors awarded her $168 million in damages, which appears to be the largest judgment on record for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Chopourian was part of the cardiovascular surgical team at Mercy General, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West, from 2006 to 2008. During that time, she says, one male surgeon informed her each morning “I'm horny” and touched her inappropriately. Another surgeon called her “stupid chick” in the operating room. In the most disturbing complaint, a third surgeon allegedly stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized heart patient while in a fit of anger. After filing her final complaint, Chopourian was fired.

Chopourian told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that she had encountered problems in the workplace before. “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,” she said.

The hospital maintains that Chopourian’s complaints were baseless and that she was fired for professional misconduct, not in retaliation for filing the charges. During the trial, however, numerous witnesses described “a culture of vulgarity and arrogance” that they said “humiliated female employees and put patients at risk,” according to the L.A. Times.

Chopourian is highly unlikely to receive the full $168 million. Her attorney, Lawrance Bohm, said the judgment could be reduced on appeal. The Supreme Court has indicated that, generally, an award cannot be reasonable if the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is greater than nine to one. The judgment in Chopourian’s case included $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish. While that’s well below a nine-to-one ratio, mental anguish is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. Chopourian and the hospital may simply agree to a settlement to avoid the prospect of an extended legal challenge; such a challenge would keep the public’s eye on a case that the hospital would surely rather disappear.

It also is not clear how much of the award the hospital would be in a position to pay. Ordinarily, the employer’s insurer would pick up the tab for this sort of judgment. In this case, I wonder whether the insurer may claim that the hospital voided its coverage by failing to respond to repeated complaints.

However, the specific dollar amount the hospital ends up paying matters less than the message that the judgment sends. That message is simple: employers of all sorts must maintain a suitable work environment for every employee.

Individuals committed the actual offenses that gave rise to Chopourian’s complaints. The hospital was not accused of any institutional practices that discriminated against women. But an employer’s responsibility goes beyond official policies.

Workplace cultures are established from the top down. In this case, it seems the heart surgeons believed they could act with impunity because of the large sums of money they brought in for the hospital. That culture needed to be challenged, and the hospital, which permitted it to develop, deserves to be held accountable. Managers cannot be everywhere at every moment, yet if they are good at their jobs, they will intervene to stop repeated and systematic abuses. The managers at Mercy General failed to do this.

As I wrote a little over a year ago, we have come a long way toward addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. We have come so far, in fact, that the workplace dynamics of the 1960s, portrayed quite accurately in “Mad Men,” now seem unbelievable to many viewers. But there are nevertheless some workers who have not gotten the message.

A $168 million judgment is a very loud message, but the administrators at Mercy General still seem to be among those who haven’t caught on. They continue to claim that firing Chopourian was the right thing to do. “We are disappointed by the jury's decision,” Mercy General President Denny Powell said in a statement. The jury is clearly not the problem in a case that presented such a long list of underlying complaints, and blaming the jurors for the trial’s result indicates that the hospital’s bosses remain in a state of denial about what is occurring on their watch.

Nobody deserves to be abused in the workplace, and nobody’s credentials or commercial value afford a license to dish out the sort of abuse that Chopourian documented at her trial. Employers who fail to live up to their responsibilities deserve to pay the price. The jury in this case just helped attach the price tag.

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