Johns Hopkins Sued for Allegedly Infecting People with STDs in the Name of Research
A $1 billion lawsuit has been filed against the Johns Hopkins Hospital System Corp. by more than 750 plaintiffs who were allegedly infected with venereal diseases without their consent during government experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s and 50s.
The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court alleges that Hopkins, as a leading authority on venereal disease at the time, played a key role in a government study of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala.
The suit claims officials at Johns Hopkins had "substantial influence" over the studies by controlling some panels that advised the federal government on how to spend research dollars. The suit also alleges that Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation, which is also named as a defendant, "did not limit their involvement to design, planning, funding and authorization of the Experiments; instead, they exercised control over, supervised, supported, encouraged, participated in and directed the course of the Experiments."
The suit says the experiments were conducted abroad in order to give "researchers the opportunity to test additional methods of infecting humans with venereal disease easily hidden from public scrutiny."
Hopkins officials reject the suit’s claims and say the institution did not conduct or pay for the government study. Hopkins doctors served on a government committee that oversaw funding for the study, officials said.
According to HHS, researchers initially infected Guatemalan sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, then allowed them to have sex with soldiers and prison inmates with the aim of spreading the disease. The suit says that orphans, children and mental patients were also deliberately infected without their consent, and that treatment was withheld from some subjects.
The experiment came to light in 2012, prompting President Obama to apologize for the research, as did then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
Robert Mathias, a lawyer with DLA Piper and Hopkins’ lead counsel, described the suit as baseless and said he will likely move to dismiss the case on statute of limitations.
“The study they’re complaining about took place almost 70 years ago,” Mathias told the Baltimore Business Journal. “The doctors they name are all deceased.”
Paul Bekman, one of the attorneys representing the victims and their families in Guatemala, believes otherwise.
“We can back up every single thing we have said in the complaint with facts and documents,” Bekman said. “Hopkins and Rockefeller were involved in this up to their eyebrows.”
A federal judge in 2012 dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. government involving the same study after determining that the U.S. government can't be held liable for actions outside the United States.