A woman sexually abused by an anesthesiologist while sedated was awarded $950,000 in compensatory and punitive damages against Mid-Columbia Medical Center Friday following a four-week trial.
The woman, a former hospital employee who earlier asked not to be named, cried after the verdict was read. She did not comment after the trial.
The jury ruled the hospital was negligent and awarded $800,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages.
“They’re very hard damages to get because you’ve got to prove very egregious conduct and you’ve got to prove it by clear and convincing evidence of outrageous conduct,” said Tom D’Amore, an attorney for the victim.
The standard for punitive damages is reckless, outrageous, malicious conduct that is dangerous to the community, D’Amore said. He said the jury “sent the message that something needed to change.”
The hospital said in a statement, “We’re very disappointed in the verdict and we are going to be considering all of our options.”
The statement added, “We continue to sympathize with the victims that suffered because of Fred Fields’ actions. While it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics given the appellate issues at stake, the women and men of Mid-Columbia Medical Center remain committed to the provision of quality healthcare in our community."
Anesthesiologist Fredrick Fields pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing 11 women and raping another between 2007 and 2011 and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. All 12 were under sedation at the time. Most were patients and two were hospital employees. One was assaulted two months after the police investigation had begun, and the same month Fields was arrested. Fields worked at the hospital for five years.
The case revolved around a handful of women who said they told hospital officials they were abused, but no action was taken.
D’Amore felt a key and highly contested point of the trial was testimony of one victim who, after surgery in 2011, told a nurse she’d been sexually abused. The nurse told Fields, who went to the woman in her hospital room and told her she was hallucinating.
The woman testified at trial that she wasn’t convinced by what Fields said, and never changed her mind that she’d been abused, but didn’t pursue the matter because no medical personnel believed her, D’Amore said.
The hospital contended she did recant her belief that she’d been abused and agreed she’d been hallucinating.
“In hospital records, they never noted anything about her telling them she was sexually abused. The only thing they put in the records was she admitted to having hallucinations, but there was nothing in the record about what she was hallucinating about,” D’Amore said.
Two jurors the Chronicle approached after the verdict declined to comment.
The case came to light in 2011 after a woman who was abused by Fields in 2007 came forward. She had a meeting with hospital CEO Duane Francis saying she wanted it reported to police and Francis immediately went to the police department, though he said in depositions he thought it was highly unlikely it could have happened.
D’Amore said by then several other cases had been reported to the hospital — including the woman a few months earlier who was told by Fields she was hallucinating — but the hospital did not tell the police about them.
A woman in 2008 testified she’d called the hospital twice and was rebuffed. The hospital said it tried repeatedly to reach her after her first complaint but couldn’t. It also denied rebuffing her allegations.
A note about the woman’s call to the hospital wasn’t made available to police, D’Amore said, but was discovered as part of a 2013 trial brought by three victims.
The hospital received anonymous complaints in 2009 and 2011 about Fields also.
The victim in the case just concluded was abused during a procedure in 2010. She was under general sedation and lying on her side when the abuse occurred. She started to wake up during the procedure and he put her back under again.
She didn’t pursue a claim at the time because she felt nobody would believe her, D’Amore said.
In all, 12 women filed suits. Last fall, four women confidentially settled their lawsuits against the hospital. A trial in 2013 saw three women win $2.4 million against the hospital. Three other women reached confidential settlements earlier. One more lawsuit is pending.
The 12-member jury first voted 11-1 to agree that the case was filed in a timely manner. Once a juror votes against a question, they are eliminated from further voting. On the question of negligence, the vote was 10-1. On the question of compensatory damages, all 10 remaining voting jurors agreed to those damages. On the question of punitive damages, the vote was 9-1.