Terry Hedgepeth, a Washington man incorrectly diagnosed with HIV, has settled a seven-year lawsuit with the clinic where he was diagnosed, Whitman Walker Health.
Hedgepeth sued Whitman Walker in District of Columbia Superior Court in 2005, claiming the clinic was liable for his emotional distress. After protracted litigation that ended in a landmark decision from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals last summer on the limits of emotional distress claims, a trial was scheduled to begin today.
On August 8, the parties filed a notice of dismissal and Judge Erik Christian dismissed the case the next day. The terms of the settlement are confidential, according to counsel on both sides. Whitman Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon said today that "we're happy and very thrilled to reach a settlement amicably with the plaintiff."
Hedgepeth's lawyer, Washington solo practitioner Jonathan Dailey, said he and his client were proud of the result they secured from the appeals court. In a June 30, 2011 ruling, the court expanded the grounds for damages claims for infliction of emotional distress for the first time since 1990.
"The net effect of this case is that it no longer matters if you suffered no physical harm," he said. "If it's emotional harm, it's recognized as a tort."
In 2000, Hedgepeth had gone for an HIV test at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, now called Whitman Walker Health. A blood test showed he wasn't HIV-positive, but the lab results form was mistakenly filled out to diagnose him as HIV-positive.
According to court filings, Hedgepeth suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Thinking that he had no reason to live, he engaged in risky behavior, including sexual intercourse with a woman who was HIV-positive.
In June 2005, however, new tests revealed that he wasn't HIV-positive. He sued later that summer. His case was dismissed after a judge found he failed to meet the "zone of physical danger" test required for emotional distress, prompting him to appeal. A three-judge appellate panel upheld the lower court's decision, but an en banc court reversed that ruling and created new case law, finding that the "physical endangerment" standard was too limited.
The court's new "supplemental rule" established 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.