Privacy Trial Pits “John Doe” Against SLUCare

A lawsuit, filed in October 1998, against Saint Louis University Care is set to go to trial soon. The plaintiff, known only as John Doe, is suing the hospital for the violation of one of his first amendment rights-privacy.

Doe alleges that after visiting the SLU Medical Center to receive a blood test in 1997, he received a note along with the results in the mail inside a SLUCare envelope. The results concluded that Doe was HIV-positive. The note said, “Wouldn’t your ex-wife love to know about this?!” Six days later he received another note inside a SLUCare envelope stating, “Your ex-wife now has a copy of your test results!”

Doe had recently gone through a divorce in which both he and his ex-wife fought for custody of their children. Doe won, but when his ex-wife learned of his test results, she tried to use the information to overturn the ruling. The judge did not allow Doe’s HIV-status to affect the custody trial.

“It is important to understand that the University denies any responsibility for the disclosure. Prior to the litigation, when this matter came to our attention, the University conducted a full investigation that failed to disclose that any Saint Louis University employee was involved in the disclosure,” stated SLU defense lawyer, Keith Phoenix of the law firm Sandberg, Phoenix and Von Gotard in an interview with The St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Releasing HIV-positive results has recently been an issue of heated debate. On one hand is protecting a person’s private life and on the other is public health.

In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, UCLA professor Ralph Frerichs stated, “Traditionally, we epidemiologists have been granted full responsibility, but society has eroded that, and now talk about respecting the rights of human individuals who have disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and so on, which makes it increasingly difficult to stop the spread of these diseases .

The virus is our enemy, not the person with the virus, but at the same time that person harbors the virus, and we need to take a series of steps to prevent that virus from moving to another person.”

On a national level, there have been many attempts to regulate HIV-positive result disclosures. One such is the HIV Prevention Act of 1997.

This act would have required state officials to provide notification and counseling to partners of HIV-positive individuals, mandated HIV testing for any person convicted of a sexual crime and bring felony charges against anyone who knowingly transmits the disease with intention to do so.

The AIDS Action Council, the nation’s leading AIDS advocacy organization, said in a press release that it believes this act to be a “warmed-over collection of right-wing proposals that replace education and personal responsibility with Big Brother punishment and control,” and that the act “represent(s) a one-size fits all solution from Washington.”

According to Missouri Laws and Department of Health Rules 1999, Missouri has similar ideas about partner notification for HIV positive results. According to SLU Hospital public relations representative John Shelton, a person’s test results are private and therefore kept confidential.

Releasing such results to a persons’ spouse or guardian, as allowed in Missouri, would not happen.

Even so, the lawsuit is not against SLU hospital, but against SLUCare, which are the physicians that work at the hospital.

According to Diane Giesler, QA Utilization Manager for SLUCare, all employees of SLUCare are required to sign a form of confidentiality before they begin work at SLU Hospital.

The trial is set to begin in February 2001.