In days gone by, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) meant embarrassment, inconvenience, and, usually, some temporary discomfort. The discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the 1980s changed that, as did later research linking human papillomavirus (HPV) with different cancers.
Today, many states impose legal liability for transmitting STDs, and for disclosing the STDs of others without their consent. We'll walk you through these laws, explaining the different legal consequences that might be involved.
Civil liability means legal responsibility for money damages as a result of some harmful conduct. In every state, infecting a person with an STD is a tort, a type of harmful conduct that can give rise to civil liability. Specifically, transmitting an STD to another person might be:
As we'll see, most STD civil lawsuits involve infections that are incurable (for example, genital herpes) or potentially life-threatening (such as HIV and human papillomavirus).
It's easy to see how transmitting an STD might qualify as a battery. If a person knows they're infected and has sexual contact with someone who isn't aware of the infection, that's almost certain to be a harmful or offensive touching.
A person whose extreme or outrageous intentional misbehavior causes another person to experience severe emotional distress can be liable under a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). Here too, it's easy to see the connection between knowingly transmitting an STD and IIED.
Having sex while infected with a sexually transmissible disease—and without first disclosing the disease—is likely to qualify as extreme or outrageous intentional misbehavior. Severe emotional distress would be the expected reaction to news of an STD exposure or infection.
Negligence is the failure to act as a reasonably careful person would act under similar circumstances. In the simplest terms, negligence is careless misbehavior. When a person who knows or should know they have an STD engages in sexual activity without taking proper precautions, that's a textbook example of negligence.
Lawsuits are time-consuming, difficult, and expensive. As a rule, it doesn't make sense to file any lawsuit—over transmission of an STD or otherwise—unless the damages are enough to justify the investment of time and money. Stated differently, sometimes it just doesn't make financial sense to sue.
That's likely to be true for many STD cases, especially those that don't involve incurable or potentially serious infections. Genital herpes, for example, is incurable, and when active it can be painful and disabling. HIV can be controlled with medications, but without effective treatment, the virus likely will lead to death. Human papillomavirus has been linked to a number of cancers which can, if not timely diagnosed and properly treated, prove fatal.
It might make sense to file a personal injury lawsuit over any serious, incurable STD. But the same isn't necessarily true for other STDs. In any case, you should consult with an experienced attorney near you to explore your options if you're exposed to or infected with an STD.
If you're injured by transmission of an STD, you can collect what the law calls "compensatory damages." As the name suggests, these damages are meant to compensate you for your injuries. Compensatory damages fall into two categories:
Economic damages compensate you for things like your past and future medical bills, lost wages, amounts you pay for replacement household services, and similar out-of-pocket losses. Typically, these damages are easy to quantify in dollars, though computing future economic losses can be complicated.
Noneconomic damages are intended to make you whole for injuries like pain and suffering, disability, loss of enjoyment of life, and similar intangible losses. It's much more difficult to quantify noneconomic losses, which is why many lawyers and insurance companies use a formula to compute them, at least in some cases.
Punitive damages aren't designed to compensate you for your injuries. Instead, they're awarded to punish wrongdoers for extreme and outrageous misconduct and deter others from engaging in similar behavior. Punitive damages might be awarded in an STD case, but be aware that:
Many states have laws making it a crime to knowingly or recklessly transmit an STD. States vary widely in terms of the conduct they punish, defenses that are available, and the penalties that can be imposed. Depending on the facts of the case, knowingly infecting another can be a felony or a misdemeanor.
For example, Florida makes it a crime for a person who's infected with an STD to engage in sexual intercourse with another person unless the other person:
(Fla. Stat. § 384.24 (2023).)
A person with HIV who violates this law is guilty of a third-degree felony. (Fla. Stat. § 384.34(5) (2023).) A person with an STD that's not HIV who violates the law commits a first-degree misdemeanor. (Fla. Stat. § 384.34(1) (2023).)
Health care information, including information about STDs, is generally protected by both federal and state laws. Disclosures of information about a person's STDs are usually limited to the patient, the patient's health care providers, and designated public health authorities. If there's reason for concern that a person has transmitted STDs to others, state laws allow limited disclosures of information to those at risk.
Unauthorized or improper disclosures of STD information can result in civil liability for fines, damages, and other penalties. When improper disclosures are made by health care or other licensed professionals, those professionals can be subject to ethical or other disciplinary actions.
If you've contracted an STD through sexual contact with another person, no doubt you have lots of questions. Who must I report my exposure to? Should I call the police or other authorities? What are my legal rights? Can I file a lawsuit against the person who infected me?
The answers to these and other important questions will depend on your state law. You'll need legal help from an attorney with expertise in your state's STD-related laws to get the answers you're after. When you're ready, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you.