Employment Law – How did Ani Chopourian get a $168 million dollar verdict?

Sacramento physician assistant Ani Chopourian made recent headlines with her $168 million verdict against Mercy General Hospital for unlawful retaliation, harassment, and rest/meal break violations.  This may be the biggest verdict ever for a victim of workplace harassment.

The $168 million verdict consists of $42.7 million for lost wages and for emotional distress and $125 million in punitive damages.  The verdict is being appealed, and it will not be surprising if the verdict is substantially reduced or if Chopourian settles in order to receive money now instead of waiting for what could be a lengthy appeals process.

Depending on what wrongdoing an employer commits, an employee may be entitled to recover lost wages since the wrongdoing (known as “back pay”) and perhaps as long as it takes to find comparable employment if reinstatement is not feasible (known as “front pay”), emotional distress, attorney fees, prejudgment interest, and punitive damages.

The amount of punitive damages that can be awarded depends on the nature of defendant’s conduct; the amount necessary to have a deterrent effect on the defendant (so a larger award is appropriate against a more wealthy company or individual); and the amount must bear a reasonable relation to the damages suffered by the plaintiff.

The $42.7 million in lost wages and emotional distress is believed to consist of about $3.5 million in lost wages and about $39 million in emotional distress.  The lost wages would include a substantial amount for front pay, so the jury must have believed Chopourian was distressed enough to be unable to find comparable employment for a while.

There are no standards for calculating emotional distress.  Given the severity of Chopourian’s claims against Mercy General Hospital as noted in the above Los Angeles Times article, a 7 figure emotional distress award is not out of the question but $39 million does appear excessive.

Often times the ratio of punitive damages to damage awards is considered in determining whether a punitive damage award is proper, and a 3 to 1 ratio ($125 million to $42.7 million) is usually thought of as reasonable.  However, if the damage award is reduced, that would justify a punitive damage reduction.  In addition, it is our understanding $125 million is nearly as high as Mercy General Hospital’s total profit, so an appeals court is likely to reduce the punitive damage award as a lower award would probably be considered enough to be a proper deterrent against this type of conduct happening again.

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