When it comes to suing someone over sexually transmitted diseases, there are essentially two different kinds of legal action: lawsuits based on when one person (the defendant) infects another person (the plaintiff), and lawsuits based on the defendant's disclosure to other people that the plaintiff has a sexually transmitted disease. This article discusses both of these kinds of lawsuits.
Liability for Infecting Another Person
A plaintiff can sue a defendant for transmission of an STD under several legal theories (a legal theory is often called a “cause of action”): negligence, battery, or fraud.
Under a negligence cause of action, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff and that the defendant knew or should have known that he or she had an STD that was likely to be passed on to the plaintiff.
A judge will almost always find that a defendant owes a duty to disclose to a sexual partner that he or she has an STD. So, if the defendant should have known about the STD, had intercourse with the plaintiff, and transmitted the disease, the defendant’s liability is likely. Note that it is also possible, in some circumstances, to sue for exposure to an STD, although no transmission occurred. This kind of case can be based on negligence or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A battery cause of action for transmission of an STD is similar to other civil battery actions, which involve the defendant’s intentional, unconsented to harmful contact with the plaintiff.
With an STD case, although the plaintiff may consent to intercourse, he or she is not consenting to intercourse accompanied by the known risk of contracting an STD. Additionally, it is not necessary that the defendant specifically intend to transmit the STD -- going forward with intercourse with the knowledge that transmission could occur is enough.
For a civil battery claim to work, it is generally necessary that the defendant have actual knowledge that he or she is infected with an STD, or is likely to have one.
A fraud cause of action is possible where the defendant knew he or she had, or was likely to have, an STD, but hid that information from the plaintiff in order to have intercourse.
Liability for Disclosing Someone Has an STD
Depending on the circumstances, disclosing to others that someone has an STD can create liability for invasion of privacy and public disclosure of private facts.
An invasion of privacy occurs when the defendant intrudes on the privacy of the plaintiff in a way that is “highly offensive” to the average person, and the intrusion pertains to subject matter that is reasonably considered private.
Liability for public disclosure of private facts occurs when details of the plaintiff’s private life are made public, those details are “highly offensive,” and the matter is of no public concern. These two causes of action are very similar, and disclosure of a plaintiff’s STD status can and does make a defendant liable under either theory.
Disclosing a plaintiff’s HIV status is specifically addressed by statute in most states. In general, disclosure of another’s HIV status is strictly prohibited, with narrow exceptions like medical procedures and court cases. A violation of the statute can, but does not always, provide grounds for a civil lawsuit (i.e. the plaintiff can sue the person who disclosed the plaintiff's HIV status).
Health Care Provider Liability for Transmission or Disclosure
Keep in mind that health care providers can be liable for exposing or transmitting an STD to a patient.
When infection takes place in a medical setting, the case is based on medical malpractice, and the plaintiff must follow the specific medical malpractice rules. The exception would be if the STD was transmitted through intercourse, in which case medical malpractice rules will not apply.
Medical providers often can legally disclose a person’s STD status in certain situations. For STD’s other than HIV, a medical provider can tell hospital staff and anyone else that might be in danger of infection, such as the infected person’s sexual partners. Disclosure of HIV is possible in similar situations, but that kind of disclosure is more closely regulated by statute in most states.
The Effect of Criminal Laws
Most states have criminal laws that specifically address transmission of sexual diseases. If a defendant is convicted in a criminal trial, the plaintiff in a civil trial might be able to use the criminal conviction as evidence of the defendant’s liability. Note that a criminal conviction alone will usually not entitle the victim to money damages.
Civil Damages in STD Cases
The usual types of injury compensation in other personal injury cases are typically available in lawsuits over transmission of an STD. In the absence of severe physical symptoms and medical costs, the majority of damages would come from the emotional distress a plaintiff suffers after contracting an STD, as well as the change in lifestyle.
In the case of exposure to an STD without infection, the damages would be based on the fear and extreme anxiety a plaintiff suffers after learning that they might have contracted an STD.
Damages for disclosure of an STD would be largely based on the emotional distress resulting from embarrassment, stigmatization and/or discriminatory treatment that can result from an STD being public knowledge.