- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - A Pierce County Superior Court jury on Wednesday awarded more than $110,000 to a former worker at Washington state’s largest psychiatric hospital who filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired for reporting what he believed was excessive force against patients.

Michael Sekulic sued the state, Western State Hospital and the Department of Social and Health Services last year claiming he was the target of retaliation after he told his supervisor about incidents of patient abuse, neglect and cruelty, according to court records.

On Wednesday, the jury said he proved his retaliation claim and awarded him about $44,000 in past economic damages and $66,118 in non-economic damages.

Sekulic told The Associated Press in an email that he was grateful for the jury’s hard work.

“I challenged how the hospital was treating its patients and its investigative procedures, but unfortunately, I was fired as a result.” Sekulic said “I hope Olympia will take note of my situation and change the culture at Western State Hospital.”

Sekulic’s lawyer, James Beck, said that “if patients are not treated fairly, the hospital staff must be able to bring this to light without fear of retribution. You cannot have a hospital reporting system that has any chance of working if the employees are afraid of retaliation.”

Kathy Spears, spokeswoman for the department’s Behavioral Health and Service Integration Administration, which oversees the hospital, said they will meet with their legal counsel to determine “what steps, if any, should be taken next.”

“We are disappointed in the decision as we felt the merits of our case were valid,” Spears said. “The department would never retaliate against anyone who reported the abuse of patients.”

The state had said that Sekulic was let go because he planned to return to school and would not available to work when he was needed.

Messages seeking comment from the Washington Attorney General’s office, which defended that agency at trial, were not immediately returned.

Sekulic worked as a counselor at the hospital in 2013. During two separate incidents, he witnessed what he said was excessive force against patients.

The first incident happened on June 15, 2013. Sekulic reported that he saw a staffer push a patient down hard several times, which caused the patient to say that he was hurt. Sekulic said the staffer then pushed the patient against the wall. He believed the staffer used unnecessary force, Beck’s opening brief said.

During the second incident, an employee grabbed a patient and “did a one-person physical takedown to the floor,” Beck said. “Again, Sekulic felt the takedown was not appropriate and inconsistent with training.”

Sekulic reported his concerns to his supervisor, but he said the hospital quickly became a “hostile work environment.”

In August, his managers told hospital officials that Sekulic was asking about whistleblower paperwork and saying the investigation into his claims was being conducted in an unfair manner. The managers also said Sekulic was too outspoken about his concerns about patient abuse, Beck said in court records.

Days after Sekulic filed complaints with federal regulators, he was fired.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle

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