The California woman who won close to $168 million this week in a harassment suit against a Sacramento hospital -- possibly the biggest employment verdict for a single employee in U.S. history -- is "reeling" from the victory, her lawyer told ABC News.
Ani Chopourian is extremely grateful and humbled by her victory against Mercy General Hospital, her attorney Lawrance Bohm told ABC News today, and she hopes it will send "a very powerful message that you cannot attack and defame a whistleblower for raising good faith complaints about workplace conditions, patient safety and sexual harassment."
On Wednesday, a federal court jury awarded the 45-year-old former cardiac surgery physician assistant $125 million in punitive damages, $39 million for mental anguish and $3.5 million for lost wages and benefits. The award came nearly four years after she says she was terminated for filing complaints repeatedly to the hospital's human resources department.
Chopourian said she was tormented and sexually harassed by surgeons and the medical staff in the cardiac surgery center at Mercy General from 2006 to 2008.
She said that one surgeon stuck her with a needle, called her a "stupid chick" and said she did surgery "like a girl." Bohm said it was a very bullying and inappropriate environment where even patients were used as tools for passive aggressive behavior. This same doctor also referred to patients as "pieces of sh--."
Surgeon Greets Others: 'I'm Horny'
Witnesses confirmed that another surgeon greeted everyone he knew with "I'm horny" and daily detailed his lack of a sex life with his wife. The male medical staff including the housekeepers and nursing assistants took the trashy sex talk in the operating room to another level by touching, Bohm said.
"One harasser told me one day, 'You'll give in to me,'" Chopourian told ABC News affiliate KXTV in Sacramento. "I'd look at him [and say] 'I'll never give in to you.' I'd look at my supervisor and say 'Do something.' They'd just laugh."
Bohm said it was a "raunchy, vile, toxic workplace" in which his client was targeted by harassers because she continued to complain about the working atmosphere. He said she stayed because she loved heart surgery and the hospital was prestigious. Her parents also lived in the area.
In a two-year period, however, Chopourian filed about 18 written complaints covering patient safety to sexual harassment to the fact that meals and break rules were not being followed. Her last filed complaint was received by human resources July 31, 2008. She was terminated Aug. 7, 2008.
In court, the hospital said that she'd failed to show up for an on-call shift and was reportedly found sleeping on the job.
"I couldn't believe they would do something like that to me," she told KXTV. "How can you ignore a person who is trying to do something about their environment?"
After Chopourian was released from Mercy in 2008, she kept her physician assistant privileges at the hospital and started working for a new doctor in gynecologic oncology. Bohm said she worked with the doctor at Mercy and another hospital until she gave her deposition in her lawsuit against the hospital.
Several months into her new job, Mercy denied Chopourian's privileges and she lost her job. Educated at UCLA and Yale, Chopourian has been unemployed for 2.5 years. Having her privileges denied rendered her unemployable.
Cardiac Surgery Unit: 'A Powerful and Thick Shroud'
Bohm said today that although the verdict vindicated her and delivered on her message, Chopourian still was in danger of losing her home and currently lived off donations of food and money from friends and family.
"It's a very powerful and thick shroud when you're talking about cardiac surgery in Mercy Hospital. It's a huge moneymaker for any particular hospital to have a cardiac surgery unit. We need heart surgeons. But there has to be boundaries established and enforced. Hospitals have to control the environment. You can't let the lunatics run the asylum," he said.
In a statement to KXTV, Mercy General Hospital said: "We are disappointed by the jury's decision. We are committed to providing a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, which is backed by strong policies and practices to protect our employees. We stand by the actions we took in ending our relationship with this former employee and we will appeal this decision."
ABC News affiliate KXTV in Sacramento contributed to this story.