Hospital liable for adopting policies that failed to protect female mental patients against the risk of sexual assault.
Aurora Vista Del Mar, LLC, a psychiatric hospital, employed unlicensed mental health workers to monitor and assist patients. One worker, Juan Valencia, sexually abused two Aurora patients. They sued Aurora and Valencia for violations of the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Protection Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15600 et seq.). The jury awarded the patients $6.75 million in noneconomic damages and allocated 35 percent fault to Valencia and 65 percent fault to Aurora. Aurora appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. The court explained that “neglect” is not limited to the denial or withdrawal of services and can include a failure to protect against health and safety hazards. Here, Valencia was a hazard to the health and safety of female patients, and Aurora failed to protect them. The court then found there was clear and convincing evidence that Aurora acted recklessly. Aurora is a sophisticated health care provider and was aware that its female patients were vulnerable, but it adopted policies that exposed those patients to a high risk of sexual predation. Those risky policies included hiring poorly trained, unlicensed mental health workers after a limited background check, understaffing, and allowing male workers to spend 20 minutes unsupervised with female patients.
The court also rejected Aurora’s excessive damages argument, holding that the Elder Abuse Act’s $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15657, subd. (b)) applies only to survival actions. The court also held that allocating most of the fault to Aurora was reasonable because its reckless operations made plaintiffs’ injuries almost inevitable. Finally, the court reversed the nonsuit of plaintiffs’ claim that the hospital was vicariously responsible for Valencia’s misconduct, holding there were triable issues of fact regarding both respondeat superior and ratification.
The bulletin describing this appellate decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, who are partners at the appellate firm Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.
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