A federal judge in Baltimore has allowed a $1 billion lawsuit to move forward against the Johns Hopkins University and others involved in a 1940s government experiment that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and other venereal diseases.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf on 842 victims and their family members, initially was dismissed last year, but U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis offered their attorneys instructions to refile — and on Wednesday denied part of a motion to dismiss the refiled suit.
After requiring the plaintiffs' attorneys to outline more specifically how and when the victims were infected, the judge allowed claims by direct victims, spouses, children, grandchildren, wrongful death and estate plaintiffs to stand. He dismissed part of the suit seeking damages under Guatemalan law.
Ryan Perlin, of Bekman, Marder and Adkins, the Baltimore-based firm representing the victims, called the decision "a significant win for our clients."
"This allows those claims to proceed and allow those people to get their day in court," he said.
The U.S. government deliberately infected experiment subjects with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to study ways to treat sexually transmitted diseases and prevent them from spreading in the 1940s. The "Guatemala Experiment," as it was known, was secret until a historian discovered evidence of it in 2010, at which point the United States formally apologized.
The suit seeks to hold Hopkins responsible because its doctors held key roles on the panels that reviewed and approved federal spending for the experiments. It alleges five senior Hopkins doctors were involved.
Hopkins said it was pleased by the partial dismissal of the lawsuit, and "maintain[s] that the plaintiffs' claims are not supported by the facts or the law."
"We feel profound sympathy for the individuals and families impacted, and reiterate that this 1940's study in Guatemala was funded and conducted by the U.S. Government, not by Johns Hopkins," Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit."
The lawsuit also names the nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation and drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants. Attorneys representing the foundation and the New York-based company did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The Rockefeller Foundation, which carried out several public health projects in Central and Latin America, helped establish "Department L," a Hopkins clinic and research center focused on syphilis.
The lawsuit claims three employees and board members, including a then-U.S. surgeon general, were involved in the experiments. The Rockefeller Foundation previously has denied any involvement.
The lawsuit also claims four corporate officers of Bristol-Myers Squibb's predecessor companies, Bristol Laboratories and E.R. Squibb & Sons Inc.'s Squibb Institute for Medical Research, also took part.
The suit divided the victims into six categories: people who were infected as part of the study; the estates of deceased direct victims; spouses; first-generation descendants; subsequent generation descendants; and relatives whose deaths were caused by diseases contracted from the study.
In the amended complaint, attorneys provided the additional details requested by the judge about at least one victim from each category — including which disease they contracted, and when and how they realized they had been infected.
One was injected while in prison with what he was told were "vitamins," the plaintiffs wrote. Another, as a 7-year-old, was told to line up at school, where he and other students were injected with something "to protect the children against diseases," the suit said.
Others died from the disease, and many unknowingly infected their spouses or children with it. Some didn't realize they'd been part of an experiment until President Barack Obama's public apology in 2012, the suit says.
While the government has apologized, the doctors overseeing the experiments should be held accountable as well, Perlin said.
"The U.S. government has apologized to Guatemala," he said "but the private institutions have not and have fought this every step of the way."
A planning meeting in the case is scheduled for Sept. 15, at which time the attorneys can move on to the discovery process. Perlin said the plaintiffs hope to use the court process to access Hopkins' large medical archives for records of the experiments.
"Our goal is to learn as much as we can about what happened in Guatemala," he said. "We're only just getting to the place where we can start doing that."