LOS ANGELES (CBS) — A jury Thursday awarded $65 million in punitive damages to a woman who was sexually abused by a male nursing assistant at a Tarzana hospital.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury reached its verdict in favor of 34- year-old Courtney Rosenberg and against Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center after about an hour of deliberations. Her assailant, nursing assistant Ramon Rodas Gaspar, was profiled on Fox television's "America's Most Wanted" in 2008 and 2009 and remains a fugitive.
On Tuesday, same panel found the hospital and its former owner, Tenet Healthcare Corp., jointly liable for negligence and sexual harassment and awarded Rosenberg $2.36 million in compensatory damages.
Rosenberg, sitting in the audience with her mother, appeared astonished by the size of the punitive damage award, which was several times larger than what was recommended by her attorney, Michael Piuze. She wept as the jurors comforted her as they left the courtroom.
"Sorry for what you had to go through," one female juror told her, while another woman on the panel said, "You will get better, trust me."
Outside the courtroom, Rosenberg said she was still trying to regain her composure.
"I never could have imagined this," she said. "I think I'm still in shock."
She also said she plans to get behind legislation for greater protection of patients from hospital employees. She also said hopes to see Gaspar caught.
The punitive damages phase was triggered after the jury found the hospital acted with malice, but not Tenet. Hospital attorney Kenneth Drake said there will be an appeal.
"We're shocked by the amount of the punitives and don't believe they are a true reflection of the facts," Drake said.
Jury foreman Stephen Wystrach, a film archivist from the Silver Lake district, said the panel awarded the large punitive damage award because they believed the hospital could have stepped in and taken action sooner against Gaspar when previous female patients also complained about him. He said the amount of the award rose the more the jurors discussed it.
Rosenberg testified that she had surgery at the hospital in April 2006 for removal of an ovarian cyst. Gaspar exhibited strange behavior by going in and out of her room several times, complimenting her on her appearance and making remarks like "Come to papa," she said.
However, Rosenberg said she was caught by surprise when the alleged assault occurred. Gaspar told her he wanted to check for any bleeding after her surgery to remove an ovarian cyst, even though her doctor told her some bleeding was normal, she said.
"It all happened so fast," Rosenberg said. "I felt his hand ... and I felt more pain ... he didn't have any gloves on."
Gaspar stopped when he heard Rosenberg's mother coming into the room, she said.
Rosenberg filed suit in January 2007. The Clark Street hospital was sold in July 2008 and is now called Providence Tarzana Medical Center.
Gaspar was arrested, but fled after posting bail.
According to Rosenberg, she did not immediately tell her mother what Gaspar allegedly did to her.
"I was ashamed, I was embarrassed," she said.
Rosenberg said she confided first in her boyfriend and later reported what happened to Los Angeles police, who eventually assigned a detective to her case.
Eventually, Rosenberg and other female patients who also alleged sexual misconduct by Gaspar at the hospital agreed to take part in an LAPD news conference to seek the public's help in finding him, she said. She and some of the other women also later agreed to be be interviewed for the "America's Most Wanted" episode, she said.
"They wanted us to help catch him," Rosenberg said. Rosenberg, who said she has a master's degree and is trained as a marriage and family therapist intern, told jurors she has seen a psychiatrist since the assault and also takes medication for depression, to deal with panic attacks and to help her sleep.
Rosenberg has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from her experience, said Piuze. He said his client once enjoyed helping severely disturbed victims of sexual abuse but now finds it hard to cope with that line of work.
Piuze said the verdict also allows for an award of attorneys' fees to the plaintiff. He said co-counsel Maryann Gallagher has a claim of more than $1 million.
Gallagher said other plaintiffs in the case reached settlements before trial.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)
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