A federal judge Thursday denied a motion to dismiss a $1 billion lawsuit brought by hundreds of Guatemalans against researchers they allege intentionally infected them with sexually transmitted diseases more than 60 years ago without their knowledge or consent.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis found the 842 plaintiffs made a sufficient case under the Alien Tort Statute that Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, the Rockefeller Foundation and Bristol Meyers Squibb aided and abetted the non-consensual experiments infecting men and women who may have also unknowingly passed the diseases on to their descendants. The experiments took place from 1947 to 1954.
“Even when a Plaintiff consulted a doctor about his/her condition, it is possible that he/she would not obtain information leading them to trace their infections back to the Guatemala Experiments,” Garbis wrote.
The judge also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims under Guatemalan law on the grounds that the tort law in question did not exist when the experiments were taking place.
“The ruling shows that this was government working in conjunction with the academic elites of the day,” said Gregory G. Hopper of Bekman, Marder & Adkins LLC in Baltimore, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys,
The lawsuit, filed in 2015, alleged the plaintiffs were kept in the dark about the nature of the experiments, intended to test the effectiveness of penicillin as an STD treatment, but “nothing was done to prevent them from passing the diseases to their spouses, children and other descendants.”
“As a result, many Guatemalans have suffered and died, and will continue to suffer and die, from the venereal diseases with which they were intentionally infected,” states the complaint, originally filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
The U.S. government formally apologized for the experiments in 2010, and a presidential commission the following year recommended government compensation for the people harmed by the experiments.
The defense argued the plaintiffs do not have a sufficient claim under the narrowly interpreted Alien Tort Statute, including the doctrine that holds an employer is responsible for the actions of its employee.
“We are pleased that the judge dismissed a significant portion of the complaint and maintain that the plaintiffs’ claims are not supported by the facts or the law. We feel profound sympathy for the individuals and families impacted, and reiterate that this 1940’s study in Guatemala was funded and conducted by the U.S. Government, not by Johns Hopkins. We will continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit,” said Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe.
The experiments came to light in 2009, when they were discovered by a college professor investigating the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment; the lawsuit alleges the defendants organized both studies.
This is the culmination of their work,” said Hopper about the experiments in Guatemala.
The judge’s ruling means the parties can proceed with discovery, and the parties will meet in September to plan out the discovery process.
“We are very excited about having an opportunity to see what documents these academic institutions and corporations have related to their role (in the experiments),” Hopper said, adding that his team already has some documents supplied by the U.S. government.
The plaintiffs’ legal team will have to send people to Guatemala as part of the discovery process, Hopper said.
“It’s a very substantial undertaking,” he said.
The case is Estate of Arturo Giron Alvarez et al v. The John Hopkins University et al., Case No. 1:15-cv-00950-MJG.