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California Physician Assistant Wins $168 Million Sexual Harassment Verdict

Last week, a Sacramento jury awarded Ani Chopourian $168 million dollars in the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history. The record judgment – $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish – is being appealed by the hospital.

Chopourian worked for two years as a physician assistant at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital. She claimed she was subjected to at least eighteen harassing incidents. A bullying surgeon 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. Another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, asking if she had joined Al Qaeda.

The hospital attempted to defend itself by claiming that Chopourian was guilty of professional misconduct, claiming that was why it fired her and tried to deny her unemployment benefits. But multiple witnesses testified to a culture of vulgarity and arrogance that humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.

The plaintiff was fired days after filing the last of her complaints about patient care and the doctors’ demeaning behavior. The evidence indicated that the hospital allowed surgeons to get away with harassment because cardiac surgery was the most lucrative aspect of the hospital’s operations.

The harassment, its impact on patient care, the hospital’s failure to properly respond to the plaintiff’s complaints, and the idea that doctors were held to a lower standard because they generated so much revenue obviously infuriated the jury.

This verdict serves as a powerful reminder of the critical need for employers to recognize and respond to harassment complaints. At minimum, employers should have strong anti-harassment and retaliation policies, train all employees on harassment at least annually, hold all employees to the same standard regarding allegations of harassment, and take all steps necessary to prevent retaliation, regardless of the merit of the underlying harassment complaint. 

This article is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.