A jury awarded a doctor nearly $1 million Thursday for being wrongfully fired as the director of student health services at Arizona State University after she questioned the way treatment was being ordered for athletes.
Dr. Laurie Vollen claimed the university fired her four years ago after she blew the whistle on an athletic department she claimed was more interested in winning games than in protecting the health of its players.
The jury agreed, awarding Vollen $600,000 for mental anguish and distress, and $399,053 for lost earnings and benefits.
After thanking each member of the jury, Vollen shook her fists in the air and shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
ASU’s attorney Ronald Lebowitz shooed reporters away and hustled the university’s vice president for student affairs, Christine Wilkinson, out of the Maricopa County Superior Courthouse without making a comment.
“This is the end of a four-year nightmare for me,” said Vollen, 41. “I’ve been marginalized from my professional culture. I’ve been unable to talk about this because nobody likes a whistleblower. I feel like I can come out now.”
The five-week trial often got nasty with Lebowitz characterizing Vollen as an arrogant egomaniac with a narcissistic personality disorder. Vollen’s attorney, Dan Siegel, thinks the tactic backfired with jurors.
“The university chose to demonize (Vollen) , and I can’t imagine why they would take such a risky strategy because she is such a caring doctor and good person,” Siegel said. “They could have said Dr. Vollen was a good doctor but she just didn’t fit. Instead, they made her a monster. On the other hand, we put forth a tremendous amount of evidence that she certainly was whistleblowing and was let go because of that.”
Although Kevin White has since replaced Charles Harris as athletic director, both Vollen and her attorney think the tense relationship between t4eam doctors and the coaches and trainers still exists at ASU.
“I have no reason to believe that the fundamental problems that were there when (Stephen) Zonner was team doctor have gotten any better,” Vollen said. “Christine Wilkinson’s will continues to be abided by.”
Vollen said she had to go to Oakland, California to find Siegel after local attorneys refused to take her case.
“They told me noone sues ASU because you can’t win,” she said. “They try to wear you down, run you out of money and run you scared. But there is a way to get justice in Phoenix. It’s hard, but I did it.”
Vollen will return to Bosnia on Monday, where she has worked exhuming the bodies of execution victims to gather evidence for a war crimes tribunal. She said the dangerous and often hideous work is preferable to working within a bureaucracy such as ASU.
“I’ve become cynical,” Vollen said. “I’ll never go into a bureaucracy as an idealist again. Instead, I’ll deal with evil head-on in Bosnia.”
Vollen filed her lawsuit in 1994, after clashing with Harris over the issue of who should oversee medical treatment for student athletes — trainers and coaches, who answered to Harris, or team doctors, who answered to Vollen.
The two clashed in 1992 over a surgery for hurdler Lamont Dailey’s heart problem. Then-team physician Zonner ordered the procedure, but Harris canceled it because he felt Dailey’s condition was congenital and the surgery would violate NCAA rules.
Later that year, Harris approved knee surgery for men’s basketball star Mario Bennett, who had injured himself in a pickup game. Coaches for the women’s basketball team allegedly had a difficult time gaining approval for surgery for one of their players who also injured her knee in a pickup game.
Vollen had alleged that Wilkinson later reneged on a promise from the university to give her a seven-year appointment. While ASU won on that count, Siegel said it was obvious the jury thought Vollen had a reasonable expectation for staying at the university for seven years because the award equaled seven years of back pay.