Psychiatric hospitals can bear responsibility for employees' abuse, appeals court rules

A California appeals court ruled April 5 that a psychiatric hospital in Ventura can be held responsible for sexual abuse by an employee, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal also upheld a jury's damage award of $3.75 million to one elderly patient at Aurora Vista del Mar and a damage award of $3 million to another. Additionally, the court ruled that California law limiting noneconomic damages to $250,000 does not apply to victims who are 65 and older under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act, according to court documents.

The case stems from a civil lawsuit filed by women who were patients at the psychiatric hospital in 2013, alleging they suffered sexual abuse by a mental health worker. They sued the hospital and its management company, Corona, Calif.-based Signature Healthcare Services.

When the hospital hired the mental health worker in July 2011, a background check by an investigative consumer reporting agency did not reveal his history of sexual misconduct because such agencies must not provide records of arrest or conviction of a crime that are more than 7 years old, according to court documents.

The court said the hospital's policy is to allow the male mental health workers to be alone with female patients in their rooms for up to 20 minutes if the door to the room is open, adding the now-dismissed mental worker had sex with the patients while they were at the hospital.

A jury assigned 30 percent fault to Signature, 35 percent fault to Aurora and 35 percent fault to the mental health workers. However, the court said an employer can be liable if sexual abuse resulted from workplace conditions or neglect, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Aurora and Signature sought a new trial, which the court granted to determine if the hospital must pay the entire damage award, the newspaper reported.

Becker's reached out to Signature and Aurora and will update the article if comments are received. 

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