State Supreme Court won’t hear mental hospital sexual misconduct case

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The California State Supreme Court said Wednesday it would not hear challenges to court rulings that a Ventura psychiatric hospital shared responsibility for an employee’s sexual contact with patients.

The denial comes after an appeals court three years ago upheld a Ventura County Superior Court jury’s decision to award $13.4 million to three women who had been patients at the Vista del Mar Hospital. The women said Juan Valencia, a mental health worker who was later fired, performed sexual acts with each of them in 2013 after they were admitted for treatment related to bipolar disorder and psychosis.

Valencia later pleaded guilty to three counts, including rape of an incompetent person.

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Vista del Mar attorneys argued that Valencia’s sex acts were hidden from employers and that many took place off campus. One of the three women, who originally received $6.5 million, reached a post-trial settlement and dropped the case.

Jurors governed the hospital, its parent company Signature Healthcare Services and Valencia shared responsibility. The Second District Court of Appeals upheld the verdict but ordered the trial court to consider whether Valencia’s former employer was liable for his part of the payment.

The defendants challenged the appeal ruling, asking for a state Supreme Court review of when an employer can be held liable for a worker’s actions. Health care industry groups, including the California Hospital Association, California Medical Association and California Dental Association, filed a brief in support of the defense.

The judges did not issue a statement explaining the refusal.

David Feldman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Supreme Court action helps protect vulnerable mental health patients by placing more blame on employers.

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“It’s fantastic. It really sets the parameters,” he said. “The wheels of justice move slowly. The system works.”

In 2019, the jury shared responsibility for paying the prize between the hospital, its parent company and Valencia. Tom Beach, an Oxnard attorney representing Vista del Mar, declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s action on Friday, but noted that the appeal ruling means questions still need to be answered about who pays for what.

“The issues are now back in the trial court,” he said.

Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Join it at [email protected] or 805-437-0255.

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