Tuesday, March 06, 2012

$167 Million Employee Rights Verdict Awarded By Federal Jury in Sacramento

Ani Coupourian sued her employer, Catholic Healtcare West (now "Dignity Health"), for sexual harassment and retaliation.  The resulting $167 million verdict, obtained by Sacarmento Trial Lawyer Lawrance Bohm, is thought to be the biggest of its kind in the U.S.  The verdict included $125 million in punitive damages, an amount almost certain to be subject to reduction or reversal following an inevitable appeal.
Coupourian was a cardiac surgery  physician assistant who claimed she was repeatedly harassed by surgeons she assisted at Mercy General Hospital between 2006 and 2008.  She claimed the harassment was daily.  She also claimed the hospital allowed unsafe and unnecessary procedures, and had poor patient care standards. She submitted 18 written complaints about these conditions during her 2 years of employment.   She also claimed she was denied meal and rest periods.  The hospital fired Coupourian for the stated reason of not being a team player and for failing to respond while "on call" over the weekend.
Her attorney stated post verdict that the defense had always defended the case as if Coupourian were a "liar and a fraud."  The size of the punitive damages verdict suggests however that the jury perceived the defendant to the actual "liar and fraud." 
Some thoughts:  

1.  Federal court is not necessarily a hostile forum to try an employment law suit.

2.  Credibility counts as much as the evidence in a case, maybe more than the evidence, because the evidence is of no impact unless believed.

3.  This verdict reflects the jury's anger and disgust.

4.  Defense arrogance can be costly.

5.  Re punitive damages, be careful what you wish for.  The appeal has a good chance of success.  With $39 million in compensatory damages, and a benchmark constitutional range of "reason" between 2 to 4 times that amount, the verdict could be either sustained or cut in half. [The range varies by court decision, some cases allowing a factor as high as 9 times the compensatory damages].  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a 10:1 ratio is almost certainly a violation of constitutional protections.  Wiki Summary.

6.  The large measure of compensatory damages suggests the jury expressed its anger by awarding a very liberal measure of emotional distress damages.  

7.  This verdict confirms the anecdotal data that when a defense attorney miscalculates the settlement value of a case, the jury verdict often exceeds the plaintiff's settlement offer by a much greater magnitude as compared to the Plaintiff's miscalculation and verdict that is less than the Defendant's offer.
8.  Yes, this verdict will be an incentive to try more cases by the employee bar, and an incentrive to settle more cases by the defense bar. 

9.  18 written complaints:  too much of a good thing?  As a plaintiff's attorney, I begin to wonder--was she hoping to get fired?  It would be interesting to hear the defense's argument in closing that she was a "liar and a fraud" (as her attorney characterized the defense.)

10.  Sacramento juries are not necessarily more liberal than those in the state at large.  Federal judges and trial procedures also tend to reign in grand staging and hyperbole.  This case may well demonstrate the power of the evidence and good lawyering despite the restraints.
[Attribution: This Article was derived from a report found at page 1 of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, March 2, 2012.]  

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