Jury awards former UC San Diego doctor $39.5 million in lawsuit claiming retaliation

Court gavel

The verdict caps a dispute over a $10 million donation from a cancer patient and where the money was intended to go.


A San Diego jury awarded more than $39.5 million Aug. 2 to a former UC San Diego oncologist who accused university officials of retaliation after a battle that started over where to steer a $10 million donation.

The University of California Board of Regents, which oversees the UC system, sued Dr. Kevin Murphy, alleging fraud and breach of duty. The doctor, in turn, sued the regents on allegations of retaliation and wrongful termination. A San Diego County Superior Court jury juggled both civil lawsuits at once.

The conflict traces back to the $10 million donation from one of Murphy’s patients and a dispute over how the donor had intended the money to be spent. UC San Diego planned to use it as a general gift for its Moores Cancer Center. Murphy said the donor had intended to fund Murphy’s research of brain stimulation treatment. He complained that the university was trying to divert the funds.

Eventually, UCSD steered the money to Murphy’s research. But he said university officials thwarted his attempts to set up clinical trials and ignored his official complaints about it.

The school said Murphy violated policies, wrongly used donated funds to set up a research clinic off campus and enriched himself and his companies.

The competing lawsuits from Murphy, 55, and the UC regents were combined into one trial that ran about eight weeks. The jury reached its verdict in less than a day.

Murphy was awarded about $9.5 million in economic damages and $30 million in non-economic damages. The jury also awarded the regents about $67,000 from the doctor for money he earned outside the university.

“The misconduct of the regents was so open and obvious that it didn’t take the jury very long to figure it out,” said Murphy’s attorney, Mark Quigley.

UC San Diego declined to comment.

Murphy, a radiation oncologist who specializes in nervous system and brain tumors, had been a professor and vice chairman of the UCSD School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Medicine & Applied Sciences. He joined the university in 2005.

In 2013, Murphy learned of transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, and later led the UCSD Center for Neuromodulation, a research center focusing on the study of TMS, according to court filings. His lawsuit said he was “responsible for pioneering PrTMS, a personalized use of TMS ... to treat patients struggling with PTSD, autism and cerebral palsy, among other things.”

Two years later, one of Murphy’s patients, philanthropist Charles Kreutzkamp, left a $10 million donation to the UC San Diego Foundation for cancer research.

In case filings, Murphy asserted that Kreutzkamp believed in Murphy’s research. Murphy said he had directed Kreutzkamp to steer the donation toward Murphy’s work at the Moores Cancer Center.

When Murphy was told the donation was not earmarked for his work, he objected to any plans to use it elsewhere and fought for it, according to case filings. The university eventually agreed to steer the funding to Murphy.

But Murphy said school officials retaliated against him, throwing up what he considered to be roadblocks that prevented him from beginning clinical trials.

Murphy filed at least five whistleblower complaints. He alleged the school did not look into any of them but did investigate an anonymous complaint alleging wrongdoing by him.

In 2020, the university did not renew its contract with Murphy.

The regents contended that Murphy failed to disclose outside research projects.

The university argued that Murphy used the donation money to establish an off-site clinic for trials and established a series of affiliated businesses, including one that ran software needed for the PrTMS technology. It argued that the staff members he hired for the research clinic spent some or all of their time working on his private businesses.

Murphy said school officials had approved the off-site research clinic.

In a court filing, the university’s attorneys argued that Murphy “brought his problems upon himself by misappropriating university resources, violating university rules and lying (including lying by omission).”

The school said there was no evidence of anyone acting with “retaliatory intent.”

“There is, however, significant evidence that the actions Murphy complains of were either legitimate methods of investigating his misconduct, the result of his misconduct or, as with the non-renewal of his part-time employment, requested by friends and colleagues with no reason to retaliate against him for unrelated business reasons,” according to the regents’ trial brief.

The university investigated Murphy internally, then hired an outside law firm to investigate. In February 2020, the outside investigation resulted in a report with “a series of negative findings against Dr. Murphy,” according to court filings. ◆