A jury awarded a former UCHealth Memorial Hospital sonographer nearly $1 million Friday - thought to be the largest award of its kind in El Paso County - after ruling that she had been fired because she was a whistleblower who voiced concerns about patient safety.
Mary Elizabeth Falcone repeatedly reported her concerns about compliance with "high-level disinfection" procedures for vaginal ultrasound probes, says the lawsuit, filed in August 2016 in 4th Judicial District Court.
Falcone, 50, had worked as an ultrasound technician in the Radiology Department for more than two decades before she was fired in September 2015, the lawsuit says.
She primarily worked at Memorial Hospital Central at 1400 E. Boulder St. but also worked shifts at Memorial Hospital North at 4050 Briargate Parkway.
In awarding her $948,039.87, the jury found that Falcone "made a good-faith report or disclosure ... regarding patient safety or quality of care."
That's why she was fired, the jury found, even though UCHealth "was aware, or reasonably should have been aware" that she was "in good faith exercising her right to make a report or disclosure."
"Beth is overjoyed that the jury found in her favor," her lawyer, Gary M. Kramer, said in a statement. "This has been a long and extremely difficult process for Beth and her family. She is very pleased with the outcome.
"The jury clearly believed Beth. This verdict sends a strong message to UCHealth and all other health care employees in Colorado. It is rare for an employee's lawsuit to proceed to trial. This case proves that the system works. We believe justice was served."
The award to Falcone consists of about $148,000 in back pay and about $800,000 in compensatory damages, Kramer said.
It marked the first time a legal claim has gone to trial based on a 2007 Colorado law passed to protect heath-care workers' right to report patient concerns or advocate for patient safety, Kramer said.
"UCHealth Memorial is obviously disappointed in the jury's decision," UCHealth spokesman Dan Weaver said in an email. "We maintain that we had an appropriate and legal reason for terminating the employee. UCHealth Memorial is now considering filing an appeal of the verdict or a motion for a new trial."
In February 2016, Falcone reported safety violations to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, leading the agency to make unannounced visits to both Memorial hospitals, her lawsuit says.
Multiple violations were found, and UCHealth was required to provide a written "plan of correction."
If not for Falcone's complaint, the deficiencies would not have been identified or corrected, the lawsuit says.
The judge ruled, however, that information about the CDPHE investigation was inadmissible, Kramer said.
The Gazette's Liz Forster contributed to this report.