Jury awards 3 women $13.25M after sexual misconduct at a California psychiatric facility
VENTURA, Calif. - A jury awarded $13.25 million to three women who said a Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital employee had sexual contact with them while they were patients at the Ventura psychiatric facility.
The jurors ruled in Ventura County Superior Court Monday that Vista del Mar, its parent company Signature Healthcare Services and former mental health worker Juan Valencia all bear responsibility. The women said Valencia, later fired by Vista del Mar, committed sexual acts with each of them in 2013 after they were admitted to the hospital for care related to bipolar disorder and psychosis.
The jury found Signature, which owns Vista and 15 other hospitals in six states, acted with malice or oppression, meaning the company could face punitive damages in a second phase of the trial that started immediately after the verdict. They could reach a decision on additional damages as soon as Tuesday, ending a trial that began in mid-June.
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"I think it's a step in the right direction," the women's lawyer, David Feldman, said of the verdict, calling it a message for Signature to continue providing psychiatric care but to take more measures to protect patients. "The jury spoke loud and clear: 'Signature get your act together.'"
Defense lawyer Tom Beach said he didn't know if an appeal would be filed but said every option would be considered. He declined additional comment.
Valencia was arrested twice in 2015 because of the sexual allegations involving patients and pleaded guilty to three charges: a misdemeanor of having sexual contact with a confined person and felonies of rape of an incompetent person and sexual penetration with a foreign object.
In the civil trial, the defense argued Valencia had sexual contact with two of the three women and both consented, also contending the most involved contact took place off campus.
Jurors ruled all the women were harmed by sexual actions. They said none consented. Feldman argued during the case the women's mental health illnesses meant they were incapable of giving consent.
The jury awarded one of the women $6.5 million in past and future damages. They awarded the other two women $3.75 million and $3 million.
All three plaintiffs were in court Monday. One wept when damages were announced.
Feldman asked for damages of more than $30 million in his closing arguments.
"It's a lot of money," he said of the $13.25 million awarded. "It's justice."
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Defense lawyers argued during the trial Signature couldn't be held responsible because its role in Vista’s operations is limited to management services and guidance. But jurors found the company bore part of the responsibility for hiring Valencia and in not taking action to prevent the harm.
Signature was founded by psychiatrist Dr. Soon K. Kim, painted during the trial both as a psychiatric care pioneer and a businessman who allegedly sacrificed patient safety for profit margins. Feldman contended Kim as sole owner controls every aspect of Signature’s hospitals, including staffing levels and new hires.
Jurors decided to consider punitive damages against Signature but not Vista del Mar.
After the verdict, jurors heard testimony and lawyers' arguments about Signature's financial status. Signature Chief Financial Officer Rob Tyler testified the company had gross revenues of $826 million in 2018 but had overall operating losses of $17 million because some of the hospitals were in the red.
Outside the courtroom, Feldman focused on protecting patients. He contended Signature needs to make changes, including increasing staffing, hiring only employees who have gone through fingerprint checks and requiring chaperones for interactions involving male staff and female patients.
"It starts from the top," he said. "It starts with Signature."
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