HIV Misdiagnosis Case Leads to D.C. Appeals Court Expanding Ground for Emotional Distress Claims
- September 7, 2012
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On behalf of Jeff Antin of Antin, Ehrlich & Epstein, LLP, Attorneys at Law posted in Medical Malpractice on Friday, September 7, 2012.
A man went in for an HIV test in 2000 at the Whitman-Walker Clinic after he learned that his girlfriend was HIV-positive. The blood test showed that the man was not actually HIV-positive, but a “human error” at the lab caused the result form to be filled out so that they stated that the man was HIV-positive.
Believing that he was HIV-positive, the man began to suffer from severe depression and started having suicidal thoughts. He also engaged in risky behavior because he thought that, “there was no reason to live.” In 2005, the man took a new series of tests. The results ruled that he was not HIV-positive. He then filed suit against the clinic and one of the doctors. The judge at the trial ruled that the man had failed to pass the “zone of physical danger” test. The man then appealed and the lower court’s decision was upheld. Not wanting to give up, the man requested an en banc hearing.
Previous case law had limited claims for emotional damages to only cases in which a person was in physical danger or feared for their personal safety. However, the en banc court found that the “physical endangerment” standard was too limiting.
The judges wrote, “because care for the body and the emotions are so interlinked, and patients often are dependent on their physicians’ exercise of due care, they therefore are susceptible to suffer emotionally as well as physically as a result of their physicians’ negligence.” They also stated that the ruling in this case extends beyond cases involving health care providers.
The unanimous decision expanded the “zone of physical danger” requirement, which had previously been established by the court’s decision in Williams v. Baker. The court has created a new “supplemental rule” which establishes a three-part test.
First, a plaintiff needs to show that the defendant’s obligation to them is tied to their emotional well-being. Secondly, it needs to be proved that an “especially likely” risk that if the defendant is negligent that it could cause the plaintiff “serious emotional distress”. The final part of the test is that it needs to be proven that the negligent actions actually did lead to emotional distress.
The ruling of this case overturned both of those previous decisions and sends the case to the Supreme Court. After five years of trial, the man will now be able to sue for “emotional distress” that was caused by his doctor’s misdiagnosis.