Think a harassment lawsuit is no big deal for your company? Think again.
A physician’s assistant who put up with unwelcome sexual comments, advances, and groping by surgeons for two years- and then was fired for complaining, was recently awarded $168 million by a California jury. This huge amount, which covers $125 million in punitive damages as well as $42.7 million in compensation for lost wages and mental anguish, is believed to be the largest amount a U.S. jury has ever given to just one employee.
Ani Chopourian was fired from Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital less than a week after submitting a written complaint about sexual abuse of women and hospital conditions in general. The hospital claimed that Chopourian was fired for “not being a team player”, showing up to work late and demanding lunch breaks.
However, Chopourian’s lawyer countered that Chopourian was fired because she objected to repeated sexual harassment by surgeons in the hospital. Witnesses cited surgeons who repeatedly made degrading, misogynistic comments towards her and towards women in general- for example, Harvard-educated surgeon Dr. Henry Zhu was cited as saying that pop star Rihanna “got what she deserved” after she was brutally beaten by Chris Brown.
Chopourian stated that she was subjected to humiliation, intimidation, groping, propositioning, obscene gestures and verbal abuse by several surgeons at the hospital.
She made a total of 18 complaints in her career to the human resources department and was fired less than a week after her last one. She was protected by California’s whistle-blower protection law, which considers the termination of an employee less than 120 days after a complaint to be retaliation.
The California jury decided that all this was enough to award Chopourian the largest single-employee settlement in U.S. history. Their decision sets a huge precedent and sends a strong message to companies and H.R. departments across the country: Ignore harassment complaints at your own peril. It could end up costing much more than you think.