Teen sues Beckley ARH for sexual harassment

A 15-year-old student claims in a lawsuit that she and at least 20 others, including other minors, were sexually harassed by the same physician at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital this summer.

The girl was working as an unpaid junior volunteer when the reported harassment occurred, according to the suit. 

The girl and her father are named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Monday in Raleigh County Circuit Clerk's Office against Appalachian Regional Healthcare, a nonprofit hospital based in Kentucky, and Dr. Zouhair Kabbara, who was a physician at Beckley ARH Hospital in June.

Kabbara's Linked In profile lists him as department chair of Family Medicine at both Beckley ARH Hospital and Raleigh General Hospital. His profile also lists him as medical director of the hospital group at Appalachian Regional Healthcare since December 2016 and ARH Regional Medical Center chair of Family Medicine since August 2017.

ARH System Manager Melissa Cornett issued a statement Monday evening.

“Dr. Zouhair Kabbara is no longer an employee of ARH or a member of the medical staff at Beckley ARH Hospital," said Cornett. "We can confirm that we received the lawsuit today.

"However, it is our policy not to comment on ongoing litigation, so we have no further comment on the lawsuit or its allegations."

A Raleigh General Hospital administrator said Kabbara had privileges at RGH in July.

In the suit, Beckley attorney Steve New alleges that Beckley ARH Hospital was aware of at least 20 other incidents of "sexual harassment or other misconduct" involving Kabbara, including reports from patients. He also alleges that Beckley ARH Hospital administrators retaliated against the girl and her dad, after the girl reported to appropriate officials at the hospital that Kabbara was harassing her.

"There is a strong public interest in preventing sexual harassment of hospital volunteers and employees and, in particular, minor children," said New, who is bringing a class action suit against ARH Healthcare on behalf of the 15-year-old girl and other victims for unspecified damages. 

The girl, whose identity is protected in court documents since she is a minor, charges that Kabbara stalked her and physically touched her while she was volunteering on hospital grounds.

The girl's father was also a volunteer at Beckley ARH. In the suit, the two charge that they complied with federal law and reported the alleged incidents to appropriate Beckley ARH authorities. They claim that Beckley ARH retaliated by using a false reason to force both of them to step down from their volunteer duties.

The suit charges that Beckley ARH was aware of at least 20 incidents in which Kabbara had allegedly targeted minors and women for sexual harassment while on hospital property and that the hospital did not take appropriate measures to stop the alleged harassment.

In the suit, New states that the girl's father began volunteering at Beckley ARH in December. In June, the girl wanted to "serve her community," and Beckley ARH offered a "junior volunteer" position to her. She was one of several minors serving as junior volunteers in the program, the lawsuit states.

The junior volunteers aided patients in the nonprofit hospital by retrieving wheelchairs, offering books and other items on the "happy cart" and performing other duties.

New charged that the girl had been in the volunteer program for two days when Kabbara allegedly began staring at her and following her. New said Kabbara stared at the girl when she was on a ladder at the hospital and that he would stand outside the hospital and stare at her as she walked inside the hospital to volunteer.

Around two weeks into her junior volunteer work, New said, Kabbara put his hands on the teen's back while she was maneuvering the "happy cart" and began to push her into an empty hospital room. Another volunteer saw the incident and caused Kabbara to stop, New said.

In late June, New charged, the girl was organizing the hospital's information desk when Kabbara "approached her from behind and pressed the front of his body, including his genitalia" against the girl's buttocks.

Two days later, New said, the girl and two more junior volunteers were on the fourth floor of the hospital waiting for an elevator when Kabbara ran toward them and told them to hold the elevator for him.

Due to his past alleged behavior, New said, the teens left the elevator and took the stairs to avoid him.

"(Kabbara) then chased (the volunteers) down the hospital stairs from the fourth floor to the first floor," New stated.

New said the girl was alarmed and reported Kabbara's behavior to Beckley ARH. New said a report was filed and the girl and her father both signed the complaint.

They were promised the report would be kept confidential, New said.

"The day following the filing of the complaint, (Kabbara) approached (the dad), cornered him and accused him of trying to ruin his career," said New. 

New charges that Kabbara told the father, "I have friends here (at Beckley ARH Hospital) that will take care of me."

Following the exchange, New said, hospital administrators suspended Kabbara's privileges at the hospital and gave him an opportunity to resign.

New said that Beckley ARH, however, allowed Kabbara to continue entering physicians' offices at Beckley ARH Hospital to treat patients at a specific physician's office and that the set-up gave Kabbara continued access to junior volunteers.

"On at least one occasion following (Kabbara's) alleged removal from the hospital, he has been seen watching (the victim)," New alleged in the suit. "(He) has conducted himself in a similar manner with numerous other volunteers, hospital employees and/or patients."

The suit states that at least 20 complaints have been filed with Beckley ARH Hospital regarding Kabbara's alleged sexual harassment and other misconduct directed at volunteers, hospital employees and patients.

After she had notified appropriate hospital authorities that Kabbara had sexually harassed her and made physical contact with her on hospital grounds, the girl claims the hospital took away the volunteer opportunities from both her and her father and barred them from participating in the programs.

New said Monday that police have been notified of the incidents.

Beckley Police Department spokesman Dave Allard was not available on Monday to verify reports of a police investigation.

Speaking in general terms and not specifically to the lawsuit against Beckley ARH Hospital, one sexual abuse advocate said that alleged incidents of harassment or abuse in a medical setting can have an extreme impact on victims.

"Sexual abuse by a medical professional is a serious violation of trust, medical ethics and the law," said Patricia Bailey, executive director of Women's Resource Center, which advocates for sexual abuse survivors. "Patients are in a dependent posture to the doctor, which on the patient side may contribute to their difficulty in saying 'no' to a doctor's inappropriate physical advantage.

"It's possible that patients who have been violated will feel guilty that they either encouraged this behavior or allowed it to occur, which may prevent them from reporting.

"Additionally, the abuse can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like reaction, in which patients fear, distrust or avoid the medical profession altogether."

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