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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 28
Man can sue for HIV misdiagnosis, D.C. court says
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Man can sue for HIV misdiagnosis, D.C. court says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A District of Columbia man can sue the clinic that mistakenly told him he is HIV-positive, the D.C. Court of Appeals said on July 5.

Terry Hedgepeth spent almost five years thinking he was HIV-positive after an erroneous diagnosis at the Whitman-Walker Health Clinic.

That was in the year 2000. He believed the diagnosis, he says, because he discovered that his girlfriend was HIV-positive.

As a result of the diagnosis, he broke up with his girlfriend, who he blamed for his infection, and cut off ties to his family because he was ashamed to face them.

He became depressed and subject to anxiety attacks that kept him in and out of mental hospitals.

In 2002, Hedgepeth says, he wandered around the streets of D.C. hoping to be shot by the D.C. Sniper.

He even began to engage in high-risk behavior - doing drugs and having unprotected sex with women he knew to be HIV-positive.

In 2005, Hedgepeth was tested at another clinic, where he was told that he had been HIV-negative all along.

He then sued the Whitman-Walker Clinic, asking for $20 million for medical negligence.

'Plaintiff has suffered damages which include, but are not limited to, severe emotional distress and anxiety, physical damages including loss of weight, loss of contact with friends and family, commitment to psychiatric facilities, severe and persistent depression and suicidal ideation, past present and future lost earnings, damage to his reputation, and the loss of nearly four years of normal life,' his lawyer wrote in the complaint.

Hedgepeth thought he had a slam-dunk case, but in 2009 a three-judge panel of the D.C. Appeals Court dismissed his suit.

Judge Robert E. Morin, who wrote the panel's ruling, said that Hedgepeth could not sue Whitman-Walker, because he wasn't physically harmed.

A 1990 court decision said that patients can only sue for malpractice if they're in a 'zone of danger.' If Hedgepeth had taken HIV medication, the panel said, he could have sued the clinic, because then he could have proven harm.

Hedgepeth appealed to the entire nine-judge court.

Hearing the case en banc, the D.C. appeals court decided that in special cases like Hedgepeth's, the 'zone of danger' rule isn't the final word.

'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 court's opinion reads.

Hedgepeth's lawyer, Jonathan Dailey, said the ruling was a 'tremendous victory.'

Hedgepeth said he knew all along that he would prevail.

'I had no doubts,' he said. 'I had great faith.'

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