Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Lawsuits

Can the intentional or negligent transmission of an STD give rise to a personal injury lawsuit?

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The transmission of a sexually transmitted disease can result in both civil and criminal liability depending upon the law of the jurisdiction in which the incident occurs. Although by no means uncommon, sexually transmitted diseases are an intensely personal and often stigmatizing topic, making some people reluctant to disclose their STD status to a partner. Failure to disclose an STD to a partner, intentionally transmitting the disease or “outing” an infected individual without permission all happen, but when does legal liability exist? Read on to learn more about Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and lawsuits.

Negligence, Battery and STDs

Causing harm to another, in a careless or reckless manner, is negligence. To be liable for negligence, a person must have a duty and must breach that duty in some way, which in turn must cause damage to the person or property of another. In general, we all have a duty to act in a non-negligent manner. In the case of STDs, this means that infected individuals have a duty not to spread the disease, or conceal it from others. Learn more about proving negligence in an injury lawsuit.

Spreading an STD can result in a lawsuit claiming negligence. A negligence suit does not take intent into account, so the fact that the individual spreads the STD unintentionally is not a defense. Even taking precautions such as using condoms or other prophylactic measures may not absolve someone of liability. But the reality of the situation is that negligence lawsuits resulting from the transmission of STDs aren't all that common.

Transmitting an STD to another more often results in a lawsuit claiming battery. Battery is an intentional tort. Unlike negligence, the laws regarding civil battery do take intent into consideration. Civil battery is the intentional harmful touching of another, causing injury or damage.

So, if one individual willfully and intentionally has sexual relations with another with the intent of passing on an STD, it is very likely that battery has occurred, and that civil liability could follow. This means that the liable party could be forced to pay personal injury damages to the injured person to compensate them for their injuries.

Intentional transmission of an STD could also be considered a crime. The potential criminal liability surrounding STDs will be discussed further below. People infected with an STD have also filed lawsuits claiming several other intentional torts as their bases. Among these are intentional infliction of emotional distress and fraud.

It is important to note that civil suits for the transmission of STDs are, for the most part, limited to incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, herpes and some strains of genital warts. The fact of the matter is the curable STDs such as Syphilis, Gonorrhea and Chlamydia generally don’t result in damages large enough to make a lawsuit worth the trouble. Lawsuits are very expensive and very intrusive, and unless there is the potential recovery that justifies the cost -- and time -- involved, it probably isn’t worth it for either the victims or their lawyers.

STDs and Privacy

Another area in which STDs can result in lawsuits is the area of privacy. Medical information is, in most cases, considered confidential and may only be released with explicit permission of the affected individual. To reveal the existence of a STD without the infected individual’s permission can result in lawsuits based on theories of intentional infliction of emotional and/or negligence.

In the case of medical professionals, disclosing a patient’s STD status can result in professional censure as well as civil charges based upon the breach of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Criminal Liability for STD Transmission

In some states, a person who knowingly infects another with an STD can be charged with a crime. The life-threatening nature of HIV/AIDS gave rise to many of these laws, which were not passed without controversy.

Criminalizing the transmission of an STD is largely based upon the infecting party’s prior knowledge of the STD. But in many cases, there has been no diagnosis and no outward symptoms of infection. This creates a gray area with regard to criminal intent. Can a person who didn’t know they were sick be charged with the crime of infecting another? Such questions are difficult, and laws generally have been written to attempt to prevent criminal charges against people that weren’t aware they were ill.

The other side of the coin is the multiple instances in which a clearly disturbed individual has, with intent and malice, deliberately infected another individual -- or multiple individuals -- with HIV/AIDS or another STD. These situations have resulted in criminal liability for battery, as well as liability for breaking specific criminal statutes pertaining to the transmission of STDs. Some states have even prosecuted individuals with attempted murder in these situations. You can learn more about Criminal Laws and Penalties for Transmitting an STD on our companion site, criminaldefenselawyer.com.

by: Zachary Matzo

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