Kaiser Is Found Liable in Retaliation Case
By Charles Ornstein, Times Staff Writer
June 3, 2006
A Los Angeles County jury found Friday that Kaiser Permanente
retaliated against one of its emergency room physicians after he
raised concerns about the quality of care at Kaiser's Bellflower
Kaiser's affiliated medical group placed Dr. Mark L. Woods
on administrative leave and reduced his pay in 2003
after he complained about filthy treatment rooms,
delays in care and a shortage of supplies, jurors said.
On a 9-3 vote, they awarded Woods $200,000 for past economic
The Bellflower hospital is the same one that in March was accused of
dumping a patient on the streets of skid row after she was discharged
from its care. A Los Angeles Police Department official said at the time
that a taxicab had taken the woman, wearing a hospital gown and
slippers, to the downtown Los Angeles area against her will. Kaiser
Friday's courtroom verdict was unusual, because Kaiser and its affiliated
Permanente physicians group generally try to force lawsuits into binding
arbitration, which is not open to the public. The judge in Woods' case,
however, ruled that the arbitration agreement was "unconscionable" and
unenforceable. The arbitration provision has since been changed.
The case publicly spotlighted the problems at the Bellflower hospital. In
one e-mail from May 2003, Woods wrote that a patient found a urinal
containing someone else's urine on a nightstand in his treatment room.
In other e-mails, Woods detailed bloody instruments left in the sink of a
treatment room and a shortage of nitroglycerin, epinephrine,
resuscitation bags and other supplies.
"This is a reoccurring dangerous trend and to date you have offered no
permanent solution," Woods wrote in a January 2003 e-mail to a Kaiser
director. "What is the next step?"
During the trial and in court papers, Kaiser and the Permanente medical
group maintained that the discipline taken against Woods in late 2003
was appropriate, because he allegedly assaulted Dr. Steve Nguyen,
then chief of the emergency service. Defense lawyers also said that
Woods had been the subject of sexual harassment complaints and that
his conduct had been deemed inappropriate.
"We respectfully disagree with the jury's verdict," Kaiser spokeswoman
Socorro Serrano said in a statement. "We encourage our physicians and
employees to advocate for improving patient care whenever and
wherever possible, and we do not condone or engage in any retaliation
against individuals for taking part in protected patient advocacy."
Serrano said Kaiser was pleased that the jury rejected Woods' other
retaliation claims and did not find that the Permanente medical group
acted with malice.
Woods had worked at the Bellflower hospital since 1990 and had
received above-average ratings
from patients and fellow physicians, court exhibits show. In late 2004, a
year after he was placed on leave, Woods was reassigned to Kaiser's
While jurors were deliberating, and unbeknown to them, Woods said the
Fontana hospital's medical group Thursday voted overwhelmingly to
terminate him as a partner. His attorney, Charles T. Mathews, said he
would file another lawsuit as a result of that action.
"Now they're going to cut him off and kick him out," Mathews said. "His
damages are cataclysmically larger now, and they're directly related to
his filing a claim for retaliation." Most jurors said they believed that
Woods was a strong advocate for his patients and that Kaiser did not
take his concerns seriously enough.
"Dr. Woods is the only one that really stood up," said juror Bertha
Salinas, 47, of Los Angeles. "He put his job in jeopardy and his future,
but he stood up." Juror Denise Nitinthorn, 36, of Temple City said she
would consider dropping her Kaiser insurance based on what she had
heard in the case.
"I'm disgusted," she said. "As far as Kaiser, I think they need to step up
and do what they need to do to correct the mistakes."
Woods said he was concerned that his message would be lost on Kaiser
because of the size of the jury's award. "The only way to get Kaiser to
really wake up is to make them pay money that would get their
attention," he said. Indeed, Kaiser spokeswoman Serrano noted that
"the damages the jury awarded Dr. Woods represented a very small
fraction of what he had been demanding from us as compensation."
Evidence gathered by Woods' lawyers showed that their client
wasn't the only one complaining about problems at Kaiser
Bellflower. Nguyen, Woods' boss, wrote in a September 2002
mass e-mail, "As of today, I still have complaints and personally
witnessed bodily fluids from previous patients when I examined the
current patient in the room…. I am tired of writing people up for not
doing their jobs."
Emergency department clinical director Russell Lo Bue wrote that he,
too, was flustered by the hospital's inability to ensure that the
emergency room had proper supplies.
"Frankly I do not understand why an organization of our size can
not get this problem solved," he wrote in a September 2003 e-mail to
colleagues. "My nurses are upset and threatening to leave because they
have to hunt and beg for basic equipment to care for ED patients. The
ED physicians are beginning to voice their dissatisfaction with the
"Everyone is tired of hearing me say, 'It will get better. Just give the
system a little more time.' "
Serrano said any problems at Bellflower's emergency room had been
corrected by October 2003, when an inspection by a national accrediting
group gave the hospital its highest rating.
Woods and his lawyers contended that Kaiser, rather than fixing
the problems, tried to cover them up. In several memos and e-
mails, Kaiser officials discouraged Woods from putting his
complaints in e-mail form, saying they could be used in lawsuits.
"E-mail is not conducive to the necessary discussion and can be
detrimental if sent or forwarded to parties who are not solely
concerned with quality improvement," area medical director Dr.
Martin Gilbert warned Woods in a July 2003 certified letter.
"I therefore ask you as of this date to stop using e-mail for these
Retaliation by Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser covers up
problems rather than
Woods and his lawyers contended
that Kaiser, rather than fixing the
problems, tried to cover them up.
In several memos and e-mails,
Kaiser officials discouraged
Woods from putting his complaints
in e-mail form, saying they could
be used in lawsuits.
"E-mail is not conducive to the
necessary discussion and can
be detrimental if sent or
forwarded to parties who are
not solely concerned with
quality improvement," area
medical director Dr. Martin
Gilbert warned Woods in a July
2003 certified letter.
"I therefore ask you as of this date
to stop using e-mail for these