Community Hospital of Long Beach and the former managers of one of its units were collectively ordered to pay $1.7 million in punitive damages in a case brought by three ex-employees who claimed they were subjected to harassment and discrimination by an openly gay male nurse.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about 2 1/2 hours before reaching the verdict in a case brought against CHLB and Memorial Psychiatric Health Services.
MPHS formerly managed a section of the hospital that treated mentally ill patients and was the employer of registered nurse Keith Kohl, who directed the unit.
Kohl supervised the plaintiffs, who claimed he flaunted his homosexuality, gave preferential treatment to homosexual males and had a disdain for women.
Monday’s verdict granted a total of $1.5 million to Maurice Stamper, the son of nursing assistant Lisa Harris, who was one of the three original plaintiffs. She died in September 2014 and her son was later substituted into the case.
The panel also awarded $100,000 each to licensed-vocational nurse Judy Alexander, 58, of Anaheim, and 56-year-old registered nurse Johann Hellmannsberger, a Fullerton resident.
On Friday, the jury awarded compensatory damages of $1.4 million each to Alexander and Hellmannsberger and $165,175 to Harris’ son.
Among the causes of action the jury found true were sexual harassment, discrimination, failure to prevent harassment and discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, defamation and negligent supervision.
The panel additionally found that the plaintiffs were subjected to malice or oppression, triggering the second phase of trial regarding punitive damages.
Lawyers for the hospital and MPHS had urged the jury not to award any punitive damages because the two entities have been operating at a deficit.
Before today’s verdict, Juliette Gabel, MPHS’s chief financial officer, testified that the company will be unable to pay the compensatory damages and that any further judgment would hamper its ability to continue assisting a foundation that helps provide medical assistance to Compton residents.
Accountant Mark Evans, a former CHLB interim controller, testified that the hospital still owes the city of Long Beach more than $1 million stemming from a loan made to the facility.
Attorneys for the hospital maintained the three were fired in April 2009 for an incident in which they, along with other CHLB employees, put a patient in mechanical restraints without a doctor’s order.
The defense lawyers also accused the trio of failing to document the use of restraints in the patient’s chart in violation of hospital policy and state law, and maintained the plaintiffs lied during an investigation of the incident and engaged in a cover-up.
Hellmannsberger and Alexander hugged several jurors outside the courtroom. Both said they are currently working, but that the allegations made against them by the hospital made it difficult to find employment in their field.
“I’m just very pleased,” Hellmannsberger said.
Alexander said she was “thrilled” by the outcome of the case and that she was “glad to have her life back.”
Alexander said she considered Harris a friend. She said she became so emotional when the late woman’s video deposition was played in court that she had to step outside.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2009.
–City News Service