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Victims Sexually Abused in California Mental Health Facility Can Collect Full Damages

In California medical malpractice lawsuits involving allegations of professional negligence, the state caps awards of non-economic damages at $250,000. However, when a lawsuit involves allegations of abuse while in the care of licensed professionals, there was previously a question about whether the damages cap applies or if instead noneconomic damages are unlimited under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Elder Abuse Act). In a recent case involving patients in a mental health hospital who were sexually abused by an unlicensed mental health aide, the Court of Appeals considered whether the damages cap under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) applied or if the damages award could instead be unlimited under the Elder Abuse Act.

Factual and Procedural Background

In the case of Samantha B., et. al. v. Aurora Vista Del Mar, LLC, et. al., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B30231, several women who were patients of a mental health hospital alleged that they were repeatedly sexually abused by an unlicensed attendant. Samantha B., Danielle W., and C. F. were patients at Aurora Vista Del Mar, a licensed psychiatric hospital. The facility was owned by Signature Healthcare Services.

In 2011, Aurora hired Juan Valencia to work in the hospital as an unlicensed mental health worker. At the time he was hired, Valencia was presented with a form in which he was asked if he had ever been arrested for an offense that would require sex offender registration, and he answered no. The hospital hired a third-party consumer reporting agency to conduct a background check on Mr. Valencia that only went back seven years before his hiring date. Consumer reporting agencies are not allowed to report arrests not leading to convictions that are older than seven years.

Valencia had a misdemeanor conviction 11 years before his hiring date. He had originally been charged with sexual abuse of a minor, which would have required him to register as a sex offender. However, he pleaded that charge down to the misdemeanor for which he was convicted, and the misdemeanor conviction did not require sex offender registration.

Since Valencia was hired to work as an unlicensed mental health worker, the hospital’s background check did not include fingerprint checks. If the hospital had instead hired licensed certified nurse’s aides (CNAs), the background check would have revealed Valencia’s past arrest and conviction. The hospital’s unlicensed mental health worker positions did not require that employees have any previous experience, training, or education. Upon being hired, Valencia completed a two-day orientation. During the orientation, he received around five minutes of training about countertransference, which occurs when caregivers form emotional bonds with their patients.

After his initial orientation, Valencia was only required to sign forms annually about relationships between patients and staff. Aurora did not test him or other mental health workers about their understanding of patient boundaries.

Aurora’s policy allowed male mental health workers to be in the rooms of female patients unsupervised for up to 20 minutes at a time as long as the doors were kept open. However, the charge nurse remained at the nurse’s station for much of the time and could not see into the rooms from that vantage point.

In 2013, while Valencia was still working at the hospital, Samantha B., Danielle W., and one other woman were patients. All three were suffering from psychosis and could not consent to sex. Valencia allegedly engaged in sexual relations with all three women while they were patients in the facility. Other workers in the hospital called Valencia “Rapey Juan.” When one staff reported this nickname to the charge nurse, she only rolled her eyes.

Earlier, in 2004, a former employee had raped a 17-year-old patient in the same hospital. At that time, the clinical director recommended that Aurora increase its education to improve the ability of workers to set boundaries with patients. However, the chief executive officer (CEO) told the clinical director that Signature Healthcare Services would not pay for the additional training and education component on boundaries.

On Nov. 29, 2013, Danielle W. was discharged from Aurora. The following day, a student nurse encountered Danielle W. together with Valencia at a party and reported that they appeared to be involved romantically. Valencia was suspended and subsequently terminated on Dec. 12, 2013, following a two-day investigation. Even though the investigation revealed that the relationship between Valencia and Danielle B. was sexual, the facility failed to report it to the state for a year. Instead, the hospital only reported the sexual relationship after it became public knowledge.

Samantha B. was discharged from Aurora on March 6, 2013. She filed a lawsuit against Aurora in Feb. 2015 and subsequently added Signature Healthcare Services as a defendant in June 2015. Danielle W. filed a similar lawsuit against Aurora in Aug. 2015, and the third patient, C.F., was discharged on April 29, 2013, and filed a lawsuit in June 2015.

The lawsuits were consolidated into a single action, and the case went to a jury trial. The jury returned verdicts in favor of all three plaintiffs. The jury awarded $3 million to Danielle W., $3.75 million to Samantha B., and $6.5 million to C. F. All of the damages awarded were noneconomic. Each plaintiff was also awarded $50,000 in punitive damages. The jury found that Signature was 30% at fault, Aurora was 35% at fault, and Valencia was 35% at fault. Aurora and Signature appealed.

Issue: Whether the court erred by not reducing the noneconomic damages award to the plaintiffs to $250,000?

Both Aurora and Signature argued that all three plaintiffs’ actions were time-barred and that even if they were not, their noneconomic damages should have been capped at $250,000 under MICRA. The plaintiffs argued that the time limitation and damages cap under MICRA did not apply and instead, the rules under the Elder Abuse Act should apply.

Rule: Lawsuits alleging professional medical negligence must be filed within one year of when the injury occurred or within one year of when it reasonably should have been discovered. Under MICRA, non-economic damages are capped at $250,000.

Under Cal. Civ. Code Proc. § 340.5, claims that allege medical malpractice must be filed within one year of the date of the injury or one year from the date the injury should reasonably have been discovered. This statute of limitations is included in MICRA. The defendants argued that it barred all three plaintiffs’ lawsuits against Aurora and Signature. The defendants also argued that non-economic damages are limited in medical malpractice actions under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 3333.2 to no more than $250,000.

The plaintiffs argued that MICRA did not apply and that instead, the Elder Abuse Act did. They argued that under the Elder Abuse Act, their complaints were not time-barred and that their non-economic damages should not be capped.

Analysis

The court began by looking at the time limitations for filing claims under MICRA. While it noted that complaints alleging professional negligence under MICRA are subject to the one-year statute of limitations, there is a four-year statute of limitations when the Elder Abuse Act applies. It then considered whether MICRA or the Elder Abuse Act applied to the plaintiffs’ case.

Unlike MICRA, which only applies in situations involving professional negligence, the Elder Abuse Act applies when the professional conduct is reckless, fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive in failing to prevent the abuse or neglect of elderly or dependent adults. The court noted that claims under the Elder Abuse Act are distinct and separate from claims under MICRA.

In Delaney v. Baker, 20 Cal.4th 23 (1999), the California Supreme Court rejected a defendant’s argument that the meaning of professional negligence applies to any situation involving a provider’s services and instead found that the heightened legal remedies under the Elder Abuse Act apply when a plaintiff proves the conduct was reckless.[5]

The court then considered whether the Elder Abuse Act or MICRA applied to the plaintiffs’ case. It noted that the hospital and its parent company had previous knowledge that a patient could be sexually abused by a male mental health worker because of the 2004 incident but failed to institute any additional education or training about boundaries. It also noted that failing to require employees who work with vulnerable adults to have licensure and more thorough background checks was also reckless.

Conclusion

The court found that the Elder Abuse Act applied. This meant that the claims were not filed beyond the statute of limitations, and the damages awards were not excessive. The trial court was affirmed, and the defendants were ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ costs on appeal.

Talk to an Experienced Attorney

If you were abused as a dependent adult while you were under the care of a hospital or other facility, you should consult an experienced injury and abuse lawyer. The attorneys at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC can review your situation and explain the potential remedies that might be available. Call us today at 866-966.5240 for a free and confidential consultation.

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