Judge Otis D. Wright’s March 16, 2020 Order dismissed a small subset of claims from plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint but ordered that the case move to trial on numerous other individual and class claims including sexual assault, negligence, and punitive damages
On March 16, 2020, the Honorable Otis D. Wright, U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California issued a ruling that the class action sexual abuse lawsuit filed by Lieff Cabraser and Sauder Schelkopf on behalf of multiple Jane Doe plaintiffs and what are estimated to be thousands of class members against Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital and Dr. Patrick Sutton should move forward. While dismissing some of the Doe plaintiffs’ sexual harassment and gender violence claims on procedural grounds, the Judge’s Order found sufficient grounds for the plaintiffs’ sexual assault, sexual battery, negligence, gross negligence, and punitive and exemplary damages claims, a subset of the sexual harassment and gender violence claims advanced by some of the Doe plaintiffs, and significantly, also upheld plaintiffs’ collective class action claims, and directed that the litigation should move forward to formal discovery and trial.
Judge Wright was clear in recognizing the strength of plaintiffs’ allegations in the face of the hospital’s attempts to cloak Dr. Sutton’s misconduct under the guise of legitimate medical purpose. Similarly, with respect to defendants’ attempts to have the plaintiffs’ sexual assault and sexual battery claims dismissed under the theory that those claims were not discovered and filed in a sufficiently timely fashion, the Judge showed support for plaintiffs’ contentions that the earlier failure to discover the wrongdoing was indeed reasonable and not the result of any failure to investigate “because Defendants actively concealed and misrepresented that Sutton’s conduct conformed to accepted medical practices or done for legitimate medical purposes.” It is typical of sexual abuse cases relating to medical institutions and medical practices (like the recent USC/Dr. George Tyndall case that settled for $215 million, or similar cases that have come to light at the University of Michigan relating to Dr. Robert Anderson and another at New York’s Rockefeller Hospital relating to Dr. Reginald Archibald) that the inherent power imbalance between patients and medical authorities plays a huge role in dismissing and delaying effective reports of the wrongdoing, and thus delaying the victims’ attempts to seek justice.
Judge Wright noted in his Order that defendants’ multiple challenges to plaintiffs’ case amounted to “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.” While he did not clarify whether he meant defendants’ efforts reflected desperation or sloppiness (or both), he denied the preponderance of their attempts to get the sexual abuse class action against Huntington Hospital thrown out of his court. The Order notes that defendants’ “cite no evidence” in their attack on the sufficiency of the size of the proposed class, and proffer “no evidence” to establish their assertion that fewer than two-thirds of the proposed class members are citizens of California. Judge Wright similarly denied defendants’ attempts to argue that Dr. Sutton’s actions towards plaintiffs such as “touching their legs in a sexual manner, conducting unexpected vaginal exams, unnecessary breasts exams, and excessive vaginal fingering” were neither sexual assault nor battery.
He was equally dismissive of defendants’ argument that Dr. Sutton’s invariant behavior with at least one of the Doe plaintiffs, that he would “always stick his fingers in and out of her vagina excessively, sensually grope her breasts, and make comments about her physical appearance,” did not sufficiently allege conduct that was “pervasive and severe,” as well as their attempts to disprove the existence of a high-level fiduciary relationship between the hospital’s medical staff and its patients that they further (and incorrectly) argued was a prerequisite to the plaintiffs’ negligence claims. Judge Wright was again straightforward in his denial of defendants’ arguments that the medical staff’s duty to protect patients was “limited only to professional negligence and not otherwise [including] a duty of care to protect patients from intentional torts” like sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
The original sexual assault class action lawsuit was filed in October of 2018 by Lieff Cabraser and Sauder Schelkopf on behalf of women who were sexually assaulted and harassed during treatment by longtime Huntington Hospital ob/gyn Patrick Sutton. The complaint was filed by three women who allege assault and harassment by Sutton, and notes that the hospital had received numerous complaints about Sutton’s behavior dating back 20 years, yet continues to allow him to practice there. Dr. Sutton has worked at Huntington Hospital since 1989.
As detailed in the Complaint, plaintiffs referred to as Jane Doe K.G. Jane Doe T.F., and Jane Doe B.S. alleged that Sutton used his position of authority and trust to sexually abuse them and potentially thousands of other women who were patients of Dr. Sutton and Huntington Hospital, including the systematic violation of the trust of vulnerable pregnant women who sought his care “by engaging in acts that include but are not limited to: inappropriate and not-medically-necessary sexualized touching during gynecological examinations and treatment, and lewd and threatening sexualized questions and comments to patients during examinations and outside the medical setting, in public places.”
“When I started seeing recent news reports about the doctor’s inappropriate treatment of other patients, I ultimately realized that standing up and speaking out would be the only way to bring justice and give power to all the other women who were victimized, while at the same time forcing hospitals to put their patients first and stop harboring and even sheltering sexual predators,” said Jane Doe T.F.
The lawsuit further alleges that Huntington Hospital routinely disregarded complaints about Sutton’s behavior, complaints that date back to the 1990s, actively and deliberately concealing Sutton’s sexual abuse and continuing to grant him uncontrolled sexual access to female patients at the hospital, all to protect Huntington Hospital’s reputation and income stream.
“We are very pleased with today’s order from the Court,” notes Annika K. Martin, one of the Lieff Cabraser partners who filed the class action lawsuit. “While long-delayed, the justice of holding accountable medical institutions that recklessly place sexual predators in positions of trust and authority, empowering them with unfettered access and opportunity to molest patients, can now move forward.”
As noted in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs and other class members had no reason to suspect that Sutton was anything other than an ethical and competent physician. Sutton used his position of trust and authority to prey on his patients by conducting improper and intrusive sexual touching as well as to make inappropriate and sexually harassing comments during exams.
“Plaintiffs are eager to move forward on their claims relating to absolutely unacceptable conduct toward vulnerable, trusting patients in a medical setting,” states attorney Joe Sauder of Sauder Schelkopf, who also represents the plaintiffs. “Our clients have been empowered to speak about this abuse and mistreatment, and we look forward to making sure their voices will finally be heard.”
As alleged in the complaint, Huntington Hospital began to receive complaints about Sutton’s behavior in the late 1990s — complaints that continued for the next several decades. But the Hospital failed to take any action in response to the complaints, continuing to employ and even promote Sutton. The complaint further alleges that instead of taking disciplinary or other action such as terminating Sutton’s employment in response to the myriad complaints against him, Huntington continued to protect Sutton and continually provide him with full access to new and existing patients.
“Dr. Sutton should never have been allowed to continue as an OB-GYN for decades in the face of all the complaints,” stated Jane Doe K.G. “The hospital, some administrators, the state medical board, someone, should have stopped him from continuing to sexually harass and abuse his patients. I hope that my role in this case will provide me and other patients with some closure.”
Learn more about the case or contact Ms. Martin confidentially and securely about your experiences with Dr. Sutton and Huntington Memorial Hospital.
About Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
Recognized as “one of the nation’s premier plaintiffs’ firms” by The American Lawyer, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP is a seventy-plus attorney law firm with offices in San Francisco, New York, and Nashville. Since our founding 46 years ago in 1972, Lieff Cabraser has litigated and resolved hundreds of class action lawsuits and thousands of individual cases, including the successful representation of thousands of women across America in class action lawsuits involving gender discrimination and in individual lawsuits due to the injuries they suffered from defective medical devices and defective prescription drugs.
Annika K. Martin
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP