A federal judge in Baltimore dismissed a $1 billion lawsuit against the Johns Hopkins University and others involved in a 1940s government experiment that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and other venereal diseases, but offered the victims' lawyers instructions — and a deadline — to refile the case.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said the suit, filed on behalf of 842 victims and their family members, did not include enough detail about their claims. Citing the "despicable nature" of the study, Garbis said lawyers could file an amended complaint including more specifics about how and when victims were infected. The amended complaint is due Oct. 14.
"There is no doubt that at least some of the Plaintiffs suffered injury from the Guatemala Study," Garbis wrote.
Paul Bekman, the victims' attorney, pledged to continue pursuing the case.
"What we're going to do is amend and refile the complaint, setting out more particular detail," said Bekman, a lawyer with Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins LLC in Baltimore. "We believe we can more than adequately do that, to meet the standard the court wants us to follow."
The lawsuit pertains to experiments conducted by the U.S. government in which subjects were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to study ways to treat sexually transmitted diseases and prevent them from spreading. The United States formally apologized for the experiments in 2010, when knowledge of them became public.
The suit seeks to hold Johns Hopkins responsible because its doctors held key roles on panels that reviewed and approved federal spending for the experiments.
In a statement, university officials described the study as "deplorable" and expressed sympathy for the individuals and families affected, but denied involvement in initiating, funding or conducting the experiment. Hopkins will continue to fight the lawsuit.
"While the plaintiffs are permitted to refile, the judge has determined with this ruling that they have not provided facts to support their legal claims," Hopkins said in a statement.
The suit also names the Rockefeller Foundation and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
The Rockefeller Foundation said in a statement that it had no role in the experiments. Representatives for Bristol-Myers Squibb could not be reached for comment.
The suit divides 842 victims into five categories: people who were infected as part of the study; the estates of deceased direct victims; spouses; descendants; and relatives whose deaths were caused by diseases contracted from the study.
For an amended complaint to move forward, lawyers must provide more detail about at least one victim from each category — including which disease they contracted, and when and how they realized they had been infected — and offer a plausible explanation of how the disease was caused by the study, according to the decision filed Wednesday.
The decision is significant not only because it gives lawyers a path — and directions — to refile a complaint, but because it acknowledges wrongdoing and says the court would have jurisdiction to hear a claim if it were presented in enough detail, said Robert Garcia, a human rights lawyer with The City Project in Los Angeles.
"That's hugely important for the judge to acknowledge that and I think it provides a great deal of hope and inspiration for the attorneys and the victims," said Garcia, who is among the lawyers representing the Archdiocese of Guatemala in a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights related to the experiments.
Bekman, the victims' lawyer, said he was not surprised by the judge's decision. Garbis made similar points at a hearing earlier this summer, he said.
The move to dismiss a case but leave open the opportunity to amend with more information is becoming increasingly common, he added.
Though amending and refiling the suit will prolong the process, Bekman said he is committed to continuing with the case.
"These people were severely injured, damaged lives, ruined spouses, children, grandchildren," he said. "We believe their voice needs to be heard."