Ventura County Star
Jury asked to give $30 million-plus in Vista del Mar sexual misconduct trial
August 7, 2019
Three women who allege they were victims of sexual battery at Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital should together receive more than $30 million in damages, a lawyer said in closing arguments.
The women are suing the Ventura psychiatric hospital, parent company Signature Healthcare Services and the hospital’s former mental health worker Juan Valencia. They allege Valencia committed sexual acts with each of them in 2013 before he was fired by Vista del Mar.
Jury deliberations started Wednesday afternoon after lawyers completed closing arguments that kicked off Tuesday morning.
Valencia was arrested in 2015 and pleaded guilty in criminal court to three charges involving the former patients: one misdemeanor of sexual contact with a confined person and felony counts of rape of an incompetent person and sexual penetration with a foreign object.
Defense lawyers argued the acts were reprehensible and illegal but were not caused by negligence from Vista del Mar or Signature. They argued Valencia had sexual contact with only two of the three victims, also citing the two women’s statements to police and others that the acts were consensual.
On Wednesday, Vista del Mar attorney Tom Beach referenced text messages sent by one of the women several months after her discharge. She called Valencia her soulmate and invited him to come be with her in Florida.
“It was welcome. It was comforting,” said Beach of the sexual contact. He has argued the most involved contact happened outside of hospital premises shortly after the patients were released.
The acts were hidden by Valencia from his employers, Beach said.
The women’s lawyer, David Feldman, argued the women’s diagnoses of bipolar disorder with psychosis meant they were incapable of giving consent. He said the women are still haunted.
“Is today the day I’m going to go 24 hours without those thoughts?” he said of the women’s trauma. “It’s a chemical rush in your body that tells you you’re not good enough.”
The three women sat in the front row during closing arguments, one of them breaking down in tears.
Lawyer: Actions ‘foreseeable and preventable’
Feldman told the jury Vista del Mar and Signature bear responsibility for hiring Valencia, inadequate training and allowing the sexual actions to happen.
“It was foreseeable and preventable,” he said, contending hospital and Signature leaders tried to sweep away the acts.
Lawyers representing Vista del Mar and Signature told jurors the hospital and its owner can’t be held responsible for Valencia’s acts. They contended the evidence doesn’t support Feldman’s assertions of negligence and motives that pushed profit ahead of patient safety.
“What attorneys say during trial is not evidence,” said lawyer Mindee Stekkinger who represents Signature. “Only the witnesses answers are evidence.”
Signature owns for-profit Vista del Mar and 15 other hospitals in six states. It was founded by psychiatrist Dr. Soon K. Kim, painted during the trial both as a psychiatric care pioneer and a businessman who allegedly sacrificed patient safety for profit margins.
Feldman contends Kim as sole owner controls every aspect of Signature’s hospitals, including staffing levels and new hires.
“The hospital cannot sneeze with Signature,” he said of Vista del Mar, contending the parent company bears 90% of the responsibility in the lawsuit.
Kim and other current and former Signature leaders testified the company isn’t involved in hiring nor in Vista del Mar’s day-to-day care operations.
It offers “guidance to the hospital not directives,” said Stekkinger, contending the company can’t be found negligent for hiring and training Valencia because it did neither.
The responsibility, Stekkinger said, rests with Valencia who was sentenced to five years in state prison. He did not testify in trial though his deposition was read.
“But for Juan Valencia, we would not be here,” she told jurors.
Valencia shouldn’t have been hired, Feldman said, citing his conviction in Santa Barbara County 19 years ago for sexual intercourse with a minor in a case involving his underage girlfriend.
Valencia served probation and the charge was dismissed in 2008, according to court records. A background check failed to turn up the conviction because it only covered seven years, Feldman said.
“They were supposed to know his priors,” he said. “They didn’t check it out.”
But a company contracted by Vista del Mar conducted a background check and it came up clear, said Beach.
More: Lawsuit alleges Ventura’s Vista del Mar Hospital responsible for ex-employee’s sex crimes
The jurors were instructed by Judge Kevin DeNoce to consider each plaintiff and defendant separately. Beach told the jurors that while Valencia acknowledged sexual contact with two of the women, he denied such acts with the third plaintiff.
Beach said the assertion was supported by testimony about the woman’s heavy medications at the hospital and her hallucinations. He also pointed at testimony from another patient who shared a room with the plaintiff, noting the roommate said the woman never complained about Valencia, contradicting the plaintiff’s own statements.
Beach told the jurors their conclusions had to be based on careful, factual analysis.
“It’s not to be based on sympathy, passion, emotion or anything else,” he said.
Feldman asked for a verdict that included $6.7 million to $7.3 million for emotional damages incurred over the past six years by one of the former patients. He asked for $4.7 million to $5.3 million for the other two former patients.
The request also included money designed to cover continuing emotional losses over future years, pushing the total to more than $30 million.
Beach said he was stunned by Feldman’s request, noting it’s up for the jury to determine if there were damages and then to calculate an amount.
“What he has to say about damages is meaningless,” Beach said.