In a case experts say rarely goes to trial, a jury this week awarded more than $13 million to three women who were sexually assaulted while patients at a private psychiatric hospital in Ventura County.
Three years ago, Juan Valencia, a mental health worker at Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura, pleaded guilty to sex crimes involving female patients in 2013. He was sentenced to more than six years in jail.
The women sued the hospital and its parent company, Michigan-based Signature Healthcare Services, alleging that Valencia was hired despite a history of sex crimes and was not properly supervised while working at the facility. In 2000, Valencia, then 18, was convicted of statutory rape after he impregnated his 14-year-old girlfriend.
On Monday, a Ventura jury determined the hospital and Signature were to blame for what happened to the women at Vista del Mar. One of the three plaintiffs was awarded $6.5 million, one $3.75 million and one $3 million in compensatory damages.
Pamila Lew, an attorney with Disability Rights California, said victims of such abuse rarely bring cases forward, let alone successfully sue in court. The power differential between a patient in a psychiatric hospital — who may be held there against their will — and a staff member makes it nearly impossible for a patient to consent to any sexual activity, she said.
“These are really unusual,” said Lew, who was not involved in the case. “This is great news.”
In a statement, representatives from Aurora Vista Del Mar said they will appeal the decision.
“We are profoundly disappointed and strongly disagree with the jury’s decision,” the statement said. “We have great empathy for the plaintiffs, but the evidence in this case was clear that there was no negligence from the hospital.”
The three young women sat in the front row of the courtroom of Ventura County Superior Court Judge Kevin G. DeNoce for the reading of the verdict Tuesday, with their families sitting behind them. They were identified only by their first names in court documents, and The Times generally does not name victims of sex crimes.
The trial, which began in mid-June, stems from when Valencia was a mental health worker at Aurora Vista del Mar, between 2011 and 2013. He was responsible for accompanying patients to doctors’ appointments, checking vital signs and picking up dirty laundry, among other duties.
But Valencia was also convicted of sex crimes related to the three women when they were patients there, including having sex with a patient at a health facility where he worked, rape of an incompetent person and penetration by a foreign object.
The women’s attorney, David Feldman, sought to show that hospital was to blame for Valencia’s crimes. The jury’s verdict showed that, he said, adding that he hoped it would force the hospital to reform its ways.
“This means [my clients] can have closure and start healing,” he said.
Feldman had sought an additional $15 million for each woman in punitive damages. “Big harm deserves a big number,” Feldman said in court Tuesday.
But when the jury reconvened, it awarded only an additional $50,000 to each plaintiff.
Signature Healthcare Services operates more than a dozen acute psychiatric facilities in California, Illinois, Nevada and Texas. At Aurora Las Encinas in Pasadena in 2008, a patient entered the room of a 14-year-old and raped her while hospital employees slept, The Times reported.
Thomas Beach, the hospital’s attorney, argued the facility was not responsible for Valencia’s crimes. The employee’s sexual contact with the women was done in secret and outside the duties of his employment, Beach said.
On Tuesday, Beach argued that financially penalizing the healthcare providers would hurt the community in the long run by limiting their ability to provide mental health services. He pointed out that Aurora Vista Del Mar closed after it was destroyed in the Thomas fire in 2017, but reopened late last year, a display of the company’s dedication to the community.
“They’re meeting a huge, important need,” he said Tuesday. “Instead of destroying their business ... let Signature continue to serve our community with their service.”