Updated at 4:59 p.m.
A Washington man incorrectly diagnosed with HIV can sue his health clinic for infliction of emotional distress, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) today, expanding the ground for similar damages claims for the first time since 1990.
Although previous case law limited claims for emotional damages to cases in which a person was in physical danger and feared for his safety, the en banc court found that "physical endangerment" is too limiting a standard.
"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," the judges wrote, noting the ruling is not limited to cases involving health care providers.
The judges, who ruled unanimously, expanded on the “zone of physical danger” requirement set up in the court’s 1990 Williams v. Baker decision.
The court’s new “supplemental rule” establishes a three-part test: First, the plaintiff has to show that the defendant’s obligation to the plaintiff is tied to the plaintiff’s emotional well-being; second, that there is an “especially likely” risk that negligence could cause “serious emotional distress;” and third, that negligent actions did cause that distress.
In the underlying case, Terry Hedgepeth went for an HIV test in late 2000 at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, now called Whitman-Walker Health, because he had just learned his girlfriend was HIV-positive. A blood test showed Hedgepeth was not HIV-positive but, due to a “human error,” the lab results form was filled out to mistakenly list him as positive.
Hedgepeth believed he was HIV-positive for the next five years. He suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts, and engaged in risky behavior, including sexual intercourse with a woman who was HIV-positive, because he thought “there was no reason for [him] to live.”
In June 2005, a series of new tests revealed he was not HIV-positive. He filed suit against the nonprofit and one of its doctors in District of Columbia Superior Court in August 2005.
The trial judge granted the defendants summary judgment, finding that Hedgepeth had failed to pass the “zone of physical danger” test. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision in October 2009. Hedgepeth successfully requested an en banc rehearing, which was held last June.
The ruling today overturns the previous decisions and remands the case back to Superior Court.
Hedgepeth was represented by Washington solo practitioner Jonathan Dailey.
"It's a tremendous victory six years in the making, not only for Mr. Hedgepeth, but for all those who suffered emotional distress at the hands of a negligent party," Dailey said this afternoon.
Marc Fiedler of Washington's Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot filed an amicus brief for the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., on Hedgepeth's behalf. He said he was pleased the court unanimously adopted the bulk of the association's recommendations.
Alfred Belcuore, also a Washington solo practitioner, argued for Whitman-Walker Health. In a written statement, Belcuore and his client said they were reviewing the decision.
"The Opinion demands committed attention and thoughtful analysis...Once we have completed this study, we will decide what our next steps may be regarding this pending legal matter," they said.
Children’s National Medical Center filed an amicus brief on Whitman-Walker Health's behalf, but a representative there could not immediately be reached.
Updated with additional reporting.