Two law firms, including the national firm of Parker Waichman LLP, plan on filing a class action lawsuit against several U.S. health agencies on behalf of victims of Guatemala syphilis testing conducted by American doctors during the 1940’s unless reparations are made this week. If filed, the Guatemalan syphilis testing lawsuit would be brought under the Alien Torts Statute, a 200-year-old law which empowers federal judges to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of the “law of nations”.
As we’ve reported previously, between 1946 and 1948, U.S. government medical researchers intentionally infected hundreds, possibly upwards of 1,500 people, in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. The government was researching the efficacy of treating the sexually transmitted diseases with penicillin. The “experiments” were uncovered by a Wellesley College professor in 2009, prompting an apology from the Obama Administration last year.
“Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement. “We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
According to a report from Law.com, the doctor who led the Guatemalan syphilis experiments was John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama, study where 600 black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades starting in 1932 to follow the course of the treatable disease. But while the Tuskegee experiment involved subjects already infected with the disease, Guatemalans were intentionally infected with syphilis. In the Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Cutler contacted orphanages, prisons and mental hospitals and cajoled them with medical supplies to allow the experiments, Law.com said.
According to Law360.com, the potential Guatemala syphilis experiment class action lawsuit would involve 700 former soldiers, orphans, prisoners and mental health patients in Guatemala who were intentionally infected with syphilis, as well as impacted family members. Defendants would include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and others. According to the draft complaint, the lawsuit would seek a declaration that the agencies involved violated human rights, an injunction to prohibit further abuses against Guatemalan residents, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Andres Alonso, a partner with <“https://www.yourlawyer.com/”>Parker Waichman LLP, and Terrence Collingsworth, an attorney with Conrad & Scherer LLP, ask that “a claims process be set up through which aggrieved citizens of Guatemala, who have been adversely affected by this experiment,” can receive a settlement outside the court system. Litigation will proceed on Friday if the U.S. government does not waive sovereign immunity or agree to provide reparations by Friday.
According to Law360.com, the Justice Department has not yet commented on the potential lawsuit.