Oregon Supreme Court Denies Ambulance Company’s Attempt to Escape Liability for Abuse of a Vulnerable Person

On July 25, 2013, the Oregon Supreme Court denied review of the Court of Appeals decision in Royshekka Herring v. American Medical Response Northwest, Inc., a case handled at the trial and appellate level by our firm, Kafoury & McDougal.

On December 8, 2007, Royshekka Herring was transported by an AMR Northwest ambulance. She awakened to find EMT Lannie Haszard’s hand in her pants. She was semi-conscious, unable to move or call for help.  Once at the hospital, Royshekka Herring regained her strength. She yelled that she did not want the EMT to come back into her room because he had sexually assaulted her. Her allegation was met by a nurse at Emanuel hospital telling her to calm down, and threatening to call security. Royshekka nevertheless jumped up on her bed and began screaming until the EMT left the room.

Herring v. AMR KATU 8/31/09 6:32pm
Herring v. AMR KATU 8/31/09 6:32pm

Haszard was ultimately arrested due to Royshekka Herring’s complaint to the police. Although AMR Northwest knew of other allegations of sexual misconduct against female patients of Lannie Haszard, AMR Northwest kept that information from the police when the police were investigating Royshekka Herring’s complaint. After Lannie Haszard was arrested, a number of women came forward. Lannie Haszard was eventually convicted of sexually assaulting seven women.

During litigation, our firm requested AMR Northwest to provide the names of all women that Lannie Haszard had transported in the prior five years. The trial court ordered AMR Northwest to produce the names. AMR Northwest fought against the disclosure, but lost before the Oregon Supreme Court. Once our firm got the names, we learned that of the 120 women we were able to reach [1], one out of six complained that Lannie Haszard had engaged in inappropriate sexual misconduct.

A Multnomah County jury heard Herring’s evidence and was asked to decide whether or not AMR Northwest had violated the Vulnerable Person Abuse Act. The jury was given two specific questions on its verdict form:

Was plaintiff incapacitated at the time of the sexual contact?

Did AMR Northwest, Inc. permit Lannie Haszard to engage in vulnerable person abuse by knowingly acting or failing to act under circumstances in which a reasonable person should have known of the sexual (physical) abuse?

The jury answered yes to both questions.

AMR Northwest appealed the jury’s verdict [2] to the Oregon Court of Appeals, arguing that even though Royshekka Herring was semi-conscious, she was not incapacitated because the term “incapacitated” requires a long-term physical or mental impairment. AMR Northwest went so far as to argue that one had to be incapacitated long enough that a court would be able to declare that a guardianship or conservatorship was required. The Oregon Court of Appeals held that one only has to be incapacitated at the time they are being subjected to the sexual abuse to be protected under Oregon’s Vulnerable Person Abuse Act. AMR Northwest filed for the Oregon Supreme Court to review and overturn the Oregon Court of Appeals decision. The Oregon Supreme Court has now denied AMR Northwest’s petition.

AMR Northwest also challenged the tripling of the jury’s verdict from $500,000 to $1,500,000 on the vulnerable person abuse claim as provided by statute. AMR Northwest argued that tripling the jury’s verdict as required by statute violated the Constitution. The Court of Appeals held that AMR Northwest had notice that abusing vulnerable persons would result in a tripled award. The Court of Appeals further restated the trial court’s finding:

The trial court found: “It was reasonable for this jury to conclude that [defendant] ‘permitted’ Lannie Haszard to abuse plaintiff by negligently failing to prevent the abuse.  Clearly, there was a great deal of evidence at trial that [defendant] knew of other instances of alleged abuse committed by Mr. Haszard.”

The Court of Appeals also pointed out that AMR Northwest had “stipulated to the fact that, of the 108 women who had been transported by Haszard, 18 had been subjected to sexually inappropriate conduct.”

Full text of the Court of Appeals opinion is available here.

[1] There were a variety of reasons why we could not reach all 500 women whose names we received. On average, people move one time every seven years. Additionally, some of the people would have been elderly or minors, and we did not have access to their Social Security information.

[2] The total judgment including amounts awarded on a negligence claim and statutory attorney fees awarded on the vulnerable person abuse claim was: negligence, $1.75 million; vulnerable person abuse, $500,000 tripled to $1.5 million by statute; and attorney fees of $600,000; altogether totaling $3.85 million.