Mrs. K was a latecomer to the nursing profession. Raised in a small town, she’d majored in biology in college 25 years earlier but married right after graduation and gave birth to her daughter shortly thereafter. Her husband, an accountant, supported the family and preferred that she stay at home while their child was in school. Most of her adult life had been spent as a homemaker. When her daughter was in high school, Mrs. K was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. It was treated successfully with radiation and chemotherapy, but the experience, particularly her interactions with clinicians, left her with a great desire to finish her studies and start a career in nursing.

She went back to school to complete her studies and, at age 45 years, began a career as a nurse practitioner with a mid-size hospital. Mrs. K was older than many of her colleagues. The nurses who were her age had been there for years and regarded her with suspicion. The younger nurses tended to socialize with their own contemporaries and mostly excluded Mrs. K. She tried not to let this bother her, however—she was not there to socialize; she was there to work and learn.

Mrs. K was assigned to work for Dr. T, a senior physician. The 64-year-old was thrice divorced and had a reputation for being very attentive to new members of the nursing staff. Mrs. K found Dr. T charming at first. He always made it a point to stop her in the hall and ask how she was doing, pat her on the shoulder, or share a joke. But soon his jokes became more flirtatious, the pats on her shoulder turned into hugs, and Mrs. K began to feel uncomfortable.

One day, Dr. T blocked the door as Mrs. K was about to leave for the day. “Your hair looks so nice today,” Dr. T said, putting his hand on her head. “I was thinking that maybe we should go out for dinner.”

“Thank you, Dr. T,” Mrs. K replied, trying to extricate herself, “but I’m happily married.”

“No harm done,” said the physician, stroking her hair one more time. “Just think of me as a good friend.”

Unfortunately, the doctor kept acting in an increasingly friendly way. He continued to ask Mrs. K out on dates, touch her hair, and put his arm around her. She tried to act as coolly as possible toward him, hoping he’d take the hint. She turned down all of his offers of dates, but still he persisted. Dr. T often blocked her way as she was getting ready to leave or cornered her in empty hallways. He frequently commented about her physical appearance.

Mrs. K did not know what to do. Dr. T was her supervisor and would be writing up her progress reports. She didn’t want to anger him by complaining to his supervisor. She didn’t feel comfortable talking to the other members of the nursing staff about Dr. T’s behavior. In the end, she decided to just try to ignore it and hope that he’d get the message and start acting professionally.

This did not happen. One day, Mrs. K was standing at the nursing station when Dr. T approached and tried to hug and kiss her. The chief of medicine was also at the nursing station talking to Ms. C, another nurse. Mrs. K saw Ms. C’s eyes widen at Dr. T’s actions, but neither she nor the chief of medicine said anything. After that incident, Dr. T’s behavior became more aggressive. Mrs. K blamed this on the chief for not chastising Dr. T, thereby tacitly accepting his actions.

The situation finally came to a head three weeks after the incident at the nursing station. Mrs. K was in an empty hallway when Dr. T cornered her. Blocked her way as she attempted to go by him, he grabbed her and tried to kiss her. Mrs. K pulled back, but the physician reached out and touched her breast. Mrs. K burst into tears and ran down the hallway with the doctor chasing after her, attempting to apologize.

Mrs. K could not return to work after that incident, despite the fact that the hospital asked for, and received, Dr. T’s resignation. After she became despondent and afraid to leave the house, her husband took her to a psychologist for treatment. The psychologist diagnosed Mrs. K with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.

On the advice of a friend, Mrs. K hired an attorney and sued the hospital and Dr. T for sexual harassment. Mrs. K’s attorney deposed two witnesses who worked for the hospital—the chief of medicine and Ms. C. The chief of medicine claimed that he had not seen anything at the nursing station, but Ms. C testified that she saw Dr. T make several attempts to hug and kiss Mrs. K and that it was a significant occurrence.

At trial, however, Ms. C changed her testimony completely and testified that the incident was minor. Mrs. K’s attorney had to confront her with her earlier testimony from the deposition to show the inaccuracies in her recollection. Mrs. K testified about how the harassment had changed her life and made her afraid to leave her house. Her husband testified that his wife was now a different person; that she had lost all joy and their marriage was strained because of it.

Mrs. K’s attorney argued that the hospital provided no sexual harassment training for its physicians and had no procedures in place for reporting an incident. He maintained that there had been severe and pervasive sexual harassment of Mrs. K by the physician and that the hospital had failed to take action. The defense argued that there was a sexual harassment manual given to new employees (although there was no requirement that it be read).

The members of the jury deliberated for three hours before returning a verdict in favor of Mrs. K, awarding her $250,000 for past emotional distress, future emotional injury, and punitive damages.

Legal background

The purpose of a deposition is to get a preview of what a witness is going to say at trial. It is out-of-court testimony (usually taking place in an attorney’s office) that serves as part of the discovery process. It can be used at trial if a witness suddenly provides different information. It is particularly useful when confronted with a hostile witness. In this case, Ms. C was considered a hostile witness because she was called to testify by the plaintiff. Since she testified differently at trial than in the deposition, the plaintiff’s attorney was able to use the deposition to impeach her testimony at trial.

Protecting yourself

Most large employers have either a human-resources department or a procedure in place that allows employees to report a problem without risking their jobs. Mrs. K was understandably reticent about seeking someone out to discuss the harassment she was facing. But when her efforts to explain to Dr. T that she was married and not interested failed, she needed to take the next step and report the problem. If her complaints did not result in a change, then she may have had to sue anyway—but hopefully the hospital would have addressed the issue, thus saving Mrs. K the trauma, and the hospital the expense, of a trial. n