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Health Care & Hospital Law

Dec. 13, 2023

Kaiser neonatal nurse who was fired after complaining about staff levels wins $41.49M

Kaiser said it stands by its firing decision, maintained that it was the nurse who endangered patient safety, and vowed to appeal the verdict.

A Los Angeles County jury awarded a neonatal intensive care nurse $41.49 million after finding Kaiser Permanente wrongfully fired her for raising concerns about patient safety and quality of care as a result of understaffing.

"Hopefully this verdict gets Kaiser's attention and gets them to look at medicine as first and foremost about patient safety, not about the business of medicine," the plaintiff's attorney, David deRubertis, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Cutting corners with staffing is a recipe for disaster in a hospital setting." He was joined on the plaintiff's team by Southern California Labor Law Group PC partners Taylor M. Prainito and Michael Zelman.

Kaiser said it stands by its firing decision, maintained that it was the nurse who endangered patient safety, and vowed to appeal the verdict.

Superior Court Judge Maurice A. Leiter presided over the trial that ended Monday with an award of $11.49 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiff and $30 million in punitive damages against the two defendants, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., in a $15 million split. Maria Gatchalian v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals et al., 21STCV15300 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed April 22, 2021).

"The allegations in this lawsuit are at odds with the facts we showed in the courtroom," Kaiser's West Ventura County senior vice president, Murtaza Sanwari, said in a statement Tuesday. "We stand by her termination and are surprised and disappointed in the verdict. Kaiser Permanente plans to appeal this decision and will maintain our high standards in protecting the health and safety of all our patients."

Kaiser's defense counsel, led by GBG LLP partners Elizabeth A. Brown, Amanda Bolliger and associate Jasmine S. Horton, argued that the plaintiff, Maria Gatchalian, was not fired because of her complaints but because she violated the hospital's infection control policy. The defense attorneys said managers were sent a photo of her sitting in a recliner chair in the neonatal intensive care unit and using her personal phone while she rested her bare feet on an Isolette with a baby inside of it.

"The Isolette ... is a protective environment designed to shield the infant from infection-causing germs. Placing her bare feet on the Isolette may have created risk to the infant which could have been life threatening. Her actions were egregious and in violation of our infection control policies and standards," Sanwari said in the statement.

The plaintiff's attorney, deRubertis, said he combated Kaiser's case with testimony from the hospital's managers and supervisors who said that nurses and other employees in the past who were caught in policy violations -- such as improper hand hygiene and fetal heart monitoring practices -- were counseled and written up, but not immediately fired.

According to deRubertis and the complaint, Gatchalian began work at the Woodland Hills hospital in 1989 and maintained a clean record for 30 years. In 2018 and 2019, she filed several complaints through Kaiser's "Unusual Occurrence Report" system that detailed hardships she said she endured on night duty. She said she was overwhelmed because there was little to no management and nurse relief available to assist the patients.

On June 2019, shortly after the Isolette photo was taken, she was fired. She claimed that Kaiser ignored and discouraged the use of the reporting system because the process required a root cause investigation and corrective action, "something Kaiser did not want to do because the root cause of the problems was intentional understaffing by Kaiser which placed profits over patients," deRubertis said.

He said Gatchalian's firing was merely an attempt to "silence her and shut her down so she would stop making patient safety complaints. ... We agree Maria did wrong and violated policy, but it wasn't something that justified termination."


Devon Belcher

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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