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California: largest award for workplace harassment in U.S. history

A jury awarded one California physician's assistant what is believed to be the largest award ever for damages suffered by a single victim of workplace harassment in the U.S. Over a two-year period of employment with the hospital, the victim recalled at least 18 complaints she had made to hospital officials complaining about an array of offensive behaviors, including bullying, inappropriate touching and language of a vulgar, sexual and disparaging nature by surgeons and staff members.

Many of the victim's complaints surrounded patient safety claiming that administrative personnel turned a blind eye to the inappropriate and distractive behavior of doctors and in doing so repeatedly put patients at risk. Only days after filing her final complaint regarding patient care and the demeaning behavior of doctors towards female staff members, the plaintiff was fired by the hospital. The hospital claimed professional misconduct by the physician's assistant and attempted to deny her unemployment benefits.

The plaintiff also testified that a similar environment was seen in other hospitals run by the same organization, however the environment at this particular hospital was so pervasive and hostile that it routinely affected patient care in such a way that she had to keep speaking out. After her numerous complaints regarding the hostility towards her, including the sexually inappropriate language and the constant intimidation and bullying that she was subjected to prior to being fired, the victim filed a lawsuit.

Numerous witnesses testified on behalf of the victim describing the workplace environment as vulgar, offensive and ripe with arrogance where the doctors and surgeons repeatedly humiliated female employees. It was reported that the testimonies of current and past employees may have swayed the jurors to accept the plaintiff's version of events at the hospital and thus reach the verdict they did as well as the unprecedented damage award.

This case shows us that although this behavior is illegal certain employers continue to break laws and behave in ways that negatively affect an employee. Those who experience things like this in the workplace have the right to seek legal recourse.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "California physician assistant wins $168 million in harassment suit," Carol J. Williams, March 2, 2012

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