A federal court jury on Wednesday awarded a record $168 million to a physician’s assistant who complained of multiple instances of sexual harassment by her supervisors in the cardiovascular surgery department at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital. The verdict is believed to be the largest ever awarded to a single plaintiff in an employment case. The plaintiff, Ani Chopourian, complained that she was sexually harassed on multiple occasions during her employment. Among other things, she alleged that one surgeon called her a "stupid chick" in the operating room, said she did surgery "like a girl," disparaged her Armenian heritage by asking if she had joined Al Qaeda, and referred to patients as "pieces of sh*t." Another surgeon allegedly stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized heart patient in a fit of rage, and yet another surgeon greeted the plaintiff each morning by saying "I’m horny" and slapping her on the bottom.
The plaintiff, who claimed to have lodged at least 18 workplace complaints during her two-year tenure with the hospital, was terminated in August 2008 for multiple instances of misconduct, including failing to show up for an on-call shift and sleeping on the job. The plaintiff claimed that her termination was retaliatory and that she has been unemployed for 2.5 years since her wrongful termination despite numerous attempts to find replacement employment. In its record-shattering verdict, the jury sided with Ms. Chopourian, awarding her $3.5 million for lost wages and benefits, $39 million for mental anguish, and an additional $125 million in punitive damages against the hospital. The hospital has indicated its intent to appeal the judgment.
This eye-popping award serves as a solemn reminder to employers of the need to maintain and follow sound anti-sexual harassment policies and practices and to take complaints of harassment and discrimination seriously. Employers are well advised to consult counsel to ensure their anti-harassment policies and practices are legally compliant and up-to-date in light of last week’s verdict.