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Sonoma Developmental Center suit settled for $1.3M

A Petaluma doctor who spent a decade at the Sonoma Developmental Center, and another 12 years fighting a retaliatory firing for reporting patient abuse, finally prevailed in federal district court Nov. 14 when a jury returned a unanimous verdict awarding Dr. Van Peña $1.34 million.

Peña was also awarded all legal fees, which his attorney Lawrence J. King said would amount to “north of $1.5 million more.”

Peña, now 69, was a staff doctor when he became alarmed in the late 1990s at the frequency of injuries and signs of abuse among the patient population at SDC. Even more alarming, he said, was the lack of competent investigation of abuse, along with evidence of cover-up by administrators at the facility.

“They didn’t want the information I was promulgating – assaults, rapes, all sorts of abuse – to be public,” Peña said last week.

Peña was placed on administrative leave for five months, and subsequently fired in July of 2001, ostensibly for, among other things, failing to provide CPR to a 92-year-old woman suffering renal failure. The SDC medical director at the time, Judith Bjorndal, charged that efforts should have been made to revive the patient, even though her guardian had provided specific instructions not to resuscitate the woman. Peña argued CPR would provide no medical benefit and might cause additional trauma, including broken ribs and organ damage. And the woman’s medical crisis, he insisted, was a result of medical malpractice when she was given the wrong drug and lapsed into a coma.


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