When Employees Abuse Patients: Can Hospitals Be Held Responsible?

36

Recently a California Appeals court upheld a jury’s decision that a hospital can be held responsible for sexual abuse committed by employees if institutions enable their actions.

The Case Specifics

The case revolves around Juan Valencia, who worked at Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Ventura, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, Juan Valencia was sentenced to more than six years in jail for sex crimes he committed in 2013 involving two patients at the hospital.

The three patients later sued the hospital and its company after it came to light that the hospital had allegedly hired Valencia, neglecting his past sexual misconduct history. It was also alleged that Valencia was an unlicensed medical worker.

A background check revealed that Valencia was convicted of a sexual crime that would have required him to register as a sexual offender. However, the case was dismissed after being reduced to a misdemeanor. Despite all this information, it apparently did not come to light during the hospital’s initial background check, pointing to neglect in the hiring process.

As pointed out by the plaintiff, the hospital failed in its duty to supervise Valencia as he worked at the institution. This was in accordance with the hospital policy that stated male workers were only allowed to be with female patients for no more than 20 minutes daily with the door open.

However, through the hospital’s lawyer, Thomas Beach, the defendant argued that it could not be held accountable for Valencia since his actions were done in secret and outside his capacity as a caregiver.

Employees at the hospital testified and confirmed that the hospital did, in fact, have policies to ensure that male patients only spent a maximum of 20 minutes with females. However, despite Valencia’s previous sexual record, the hospital did not run a conclusive background check before hiring him.

What’s more, the hospital’s CEO testified to being aware of Valencia’s sexual misconduct but only reported it a full year after it became public knowledge.

Ultimately, the trial jury found that Valencia, the hospital, and the parent company, Signature Health Services, could all be held accountable for the crimes. Accordingly, it allocated 30 percent of the blame to Valencia, 35 percent to the hospital, and 35 percent to Signature Health Services.

The plaintiffs were each awarded several million dollars in compensation ($6.5 million.) However, the defendant’s legal team said they would appeal the decision.

The Appeal

After the appeal, the Second District Court of Appeals in Ventura upheld the jury’s decision. The court’s 3-0 decision affirmed that hospitals could be held responsible for sexual crimes committed by employees, especially when the employer’s neglect promotes such cases.

The appeals court also concluded that compensation for victims that are 65 and older is not subject to California’s $250,000 in medical malpractices limit. According to the court, the limitation only applies to deceased patients, but since the victims are alive, they are eligible for the damages award set by the trial jury.

This was seen as a great victory for abused hospital patients as the court upheld the decision to award the two victims $6.5 million in damages.

The court has also ordered a retrial to determine whether the hospital and its company must pay the full amount in damages (a date has not yet been set).