WASHINGTON – Johns Hopkins University has been served with a billion-dollar lawsuit accusing the university’s medical center for playing a key role in experiments with sexually transmitted diseases conducted in Guatemala in the 1940s.
The legal process seeks to hold Hopkins responsible for the experiment because its doctors held pivotal roles on the review panels that approved federal spending for the experiments. The suit was filed in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. The suit also names the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants.
The claim is being made by 774 victims and relatives of the 124 people who died.
They say these corporations were the driving force behind human experiments in which vulnerable populations of Guatemalans were intentionally exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases without prior consent as part of an experiment to test several forms of penicillin.
Paul Bekman, one of the lawyers for the victims, said one reason for getting the story out is so it can never happen again. The other reason, he said, is to compensate the victims and their families because some of them have “been through hell.”
This is the challenger’s latest effort to seek compensation for the experiments. In 2012, a federal judge dismissed the claims against top U.S. officials based on a legal technicality that prevents the United States government from being held accountable for actions committed in other countries.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said in his ruling that the study was “deeply troubling,” and encouraged victims to seek help from the government.
Both Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation denied involvement in the experiments. Johns Hopkins said in a statement it did not “initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala” and reiterated that the study had been funded and executed by the U.S. government.
The statement from the medical institution said that the lawsuit is an opportunity by the challengers’ lawyers to “exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment.
The lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages for each of nine counts, including negligence and $1 billion in punitive damages.
Professor Susan M. Reverby from Wellesley College, who wrote the report that made the experiments public, said she believes the institutions involved in the new lawsuit are not responsible. It was the U.S. government along with Guatemalan authorities who approved the experiment.
Reverby published her report on the subject, “‘Normal exposure'” and Inoculation Syphilis: A PHS ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala” in 2011. A draft of her report became public in 2010, causing officials to acknowledge the experiments.
Reverby stumbled on documents at the University of Pittsburgh by researcher Dr. John Cutler. She was looking for documents about similar experiments conducted at the Tuskegee Institute. The U.S. Public Health Service studied the progress of syphilis in black men in rural Alabama. Researchers were faulted for failing to treat the men, even after penicillin was discovered as a treatment for the sexually transmitted disease.
The Tuskegee experiment ran for 40 years. It started in 1932 and ended in 1972 due to a whistleblower, who leaked a study to the press.
The Tuskegee victims and their families were compensated with lifetime medical benefits and $10 million.
Reverby said that, while the Guatemalan victims and their families deserve compensation, it should come from the United States government, not the institutions.
The Guatemalan experiments took place from 1946 to 1948. Researchers deliberately infected subjects with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The form of transmission was of “normal exposure,” which meant male subjects had sex with prostitutes who were infected with the disease. If a male subject did not become infected after having sex, the person was exposed to the bacteria to wounds.
The participants were mostly prison inmates and psychological patients. Orphans and children who attended public schools were also included, but not intentionally exposed.
The lawsuit seeks to connect Hopkins to the study by linking it to the panel that was responsible for reviewing the studies’ designs and approving them for federal funding.
According to the 2011 report on the Guatemalan experiments by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, a Johns Hopkins doctor was chair of the panel, and three others with ties to the institution were members in 1946 when it reviewed the proposal for the research in Guatemala.
The lawsuit says the experiments were conducted with the “support, knowledge, and approval of agents, servants and employees of Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb supplied the penicillin necessary for the Guatemalan experiments.
The challengers are being represented by three law firms – Meridian 361 International Law Group, PLLC of Portland, Maine; Escritorio Juridico Rodriguez Fajardo y Asociados of Caracas, of Venezuela, and Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins of Baltimore.
In 2010, President Barack Obama apologized to the Guatemalan government. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius also apologized.
Reach reporter Alicia Alvarez at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.