Guatemalan Syphilis Victims File Class Action Lawsuit against U.S. Government

Victims of <"">Guatemalan syphilis experiments carried out by U.S. government scientists in the 1940s have filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies seeking reparations for human rights abuses. Attorneys representing the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims, including <"">Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, had asked the Obama Administration to set up a claims process for reparations, but the federal government failed to respond before a Friday deadline imposed by the plaintiffs came and went. Because no offer of restitution was forthcoming, the Guatemalan syphilis experiment lawsuit was filed today in federal court in Washington, D.C.

As we’ve reported previously, between 1946 and 1948, U.S. government medical researchers intentionally infected hundreds, possibly upwards of 1,500 people, in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. The government was researching the efficacy of treating the sexually transmitted diseases with penicillin.

The doctor who led the Guatemalan syphilis experiments was John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama, study where 600 black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades starting in 1932 to follow the course of the treatable disease. Cutler used promises of medical supplies to convince orphanages, prisons and mental hospitals in Guatemala to allow the experiments. But while the Tuskegee experiment involved subjects already infected with the disease, Guatemalans were intentionally infected with syphilis without their knowledge or consent.

Late last year, the Obama Administration did acknowledge and apologize for the experiments in Guatemala, but advocates for the victims say more needs to be done. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week, Andres Alonso, a partner with Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, and Terrence Collingsworth, an attorney with Conrad & Scherer LLP, asked that “a claims process be set up through which aggrieved citizens of Guatemala, who have been adversely affected by this experiment,” could receive restitution outside the court system. But the firms received no response from Holder before the Friday deadline passed.

The lack of response prompted the attorneys to file the Guatemala syphilis lawsuit, a class action, today. Filed by seven named plaintiffs, the complaint was brought on behalf of hundreds former Guatemalan soldiers, orphans, prisoners and mental health patients who were intentionally infected with syphilis, as well as impacted family members. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

Defendants named in the complaint include U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary of health; Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin; Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control; and Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. It also names Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan-American Health Organization (formerly the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau) as a defendant.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the defendants violated human rights, an injunction to prohibit further abuses against Guatemalan residents, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.

The causes of action cited by the Guatemala syphilis lawsuit include two causes arising under the Alien Tort Statute for violations of the international prohibitions against medical experimentation on non-consenting human subjects and against cruel, inhuman degrading treatment; and two causes arising under the U.S. Constitution, for the violation of their right to due process and for subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment. Victims who wish to sue in Guatemala may opt out of the class.

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