A California physician’s assistant who claims to have endured a hostile work environment at a Sacramento hospital has declared victory in the amount of $168 million dollars in damages – perhaps the largest award granted to a single employee in United States history.
Ani Chopourian, a cardiac surgeon’s assistant, alleged that during her two-year employment at Mercy General Hospital she endured a hostile work environment and countless instances of harassment and was witness to patient abuse. She says she lost track of the number of ignored complaints she filed.
According to Chopourian, the complaints included report of a bullying surgeon who, on one occasion, supposedly stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized patient during a fit of rage. Other complaints ranged from remarks about her Armenian heritage and sexual harassment claims to violations of patient safety and employment law.
Though the hospital asserts her 2008 dismissal and denial of unemployment benefits was a result of professional misconduct including failure to show up for a shift and sleeping on the job, Chopourian believes she was wrongfully terminated for speaking up. Her attorney, Lawrance Bohm, alleges the hospital was a bullying and inappropriate environment where even patients were victims of passive aggressive behavior.
Bohm says, although Chopourian endured a “toxic workplace” she stayed because she loved heart surgery, the hospital was prestigious and she had family living in the area. After her dismissal in 2008, she kept her physician assistant privileges at the hospital and began working with a doctor in gynecologic oncology both at Mercy and another hospital until she gave her deposition in the lawsuit.
Just months into her new job, she was denied hospital privileges at Mercy and lost the job. A graduate of UCLA and Yale, Chopurian was deemed unemployable due to her lack of hospital privileges and found herself out of work.
“Cardiac surgery brings in the most money for any hospital, which is why they are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal and inappropriate behavior,” says Chopourian. She points out that there were “four very strong witnesses who were frightened to speak up but did so because they felt it was important that someone put a stop to this.”
According to Bohm,“There has to be boundaries established and enforced. Hospitals have to control the environment. You can’t let the lunatics run the asylum.” He believes the jury was “shocked by the workplace environment” after hearing witnesses tell of the “vulgarity and arrogance they claim humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.”
Officials at Mercy General Hospital are disappointed in the decision. They claim to be committed to providing a safe working environment – one free from sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior which is backed by strong policies and practices to protect employees. Standing by their actions and decision to fire Chopourian, they plan to appeal the decision.
Despite the verdict, the record judgment totaling $168 million in punitive damages, lost wages and compensation for mental anguish could be reduced on appeal or in settlement talks.