A federal judge in Maryland said Johns Hopkins University, pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a top-secret program in the 1940s ran by the US government that injected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis, reported Reuters.
Several doctors from Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation were involved in the government program, as well as four executives from Bristol-Myers' predecessors, Bristol Laboratories and the Squibb Institute, according to the complaint.
"The overall purpose of the study was to test out whether antibiotics could be used to prevent syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections before its symptoms appeared in someone who was exposed to them. So the researchers initially recruited sex workers with syphilis to have sex with prisoners.
Later on, they directly infected volunteers without their informed consent or knowledge of what was really happening.
In many cases, though, infected people were left untreated. In total, 83 deaths were linked to the study, though it’s not entirely certain whether the infections were the direct cause (That said, late-stage syphilis is often fatal)," reported Gizmodo.
In a January 3 decision, US District Judge Theodore Chuang denied the defendants’ argument that a recent Supreme Court decision shielding foreign businesses from lawsuits in US courts over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic firms absent Congressional authorization.
Chuang’s decision was a big victory for 444 victims (all mostly dead) and their relatives suing over the experiment.
The experiment was concealed until a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts discovered the files in 2010.
Chuang said lawsuits against US businesses under the federal Alien Tort Statute were not “categorically foreclosed” by the Supreme Court decision last April 24 in Jesner v Arab Bank Plc covering foreign corporations.
He said the “need for judicial caution” was “markedly reduced” where US businesses were defendants because there was no significant threat of diplomatic tensions from foreign governments.
The federal judge said letting the Guatemala case proceed would “promote harmony” by giving foreign plaintiffs a chance at a remedy in the American court system.
“Johns Hopkins expresses profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study funded and conducted by the U.S. government in Guatemala,” the university said in a statement. “We respect the legal process, and we will continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”
Hopkins, Bristol-Myers, and the Rockefeller Foundation and their lawyers did not immediately respond to Reuters' requests for a statement.
Paul Bekman, a lawyer for the 444 Guatemalans, said his clients would proceed with discovery, including the exchange of decades-old documents.
An earlier decision found no statute of limitations arguments could be made since the plaintiffs did not learn about the experiment until 2010.
Infecting Guatemalan hookers with sexually transmitted diseases was one of many eugenic programs the US government conducted during the 1940s and Post–World War II era. Now the academic institutions and corporations involved in these horrific government experiments are being served with massive lawsuits that could be financially devastating.