Can You Get Sued for an STD?

Relationships, Bizarre, NakedLaw, Rights

Never underestimate a betrayed ex-girlfriend or boyfriend with a good lawyer. That’s the lesson some people are learning after they lied about their sexual history and gave their partners a sexually transmitted disease. Think you’re in the clear if you “forget” to mention that case of herpes or HPV to a casual date? You might want to think again–and then come clean before hitting the sheets.

Recent history of suing over an STD goes back to the 1980s, when the courts established that if an individual has a sexually transmitted disease, is aware of it, and is sexually active, that person has the duty to inform any sexual partners. While some lawyers argued the right to privacy superseded the duty to inform, in 1984 a California appellate court ruled that public health concerns trumped the right to privacy in cases of sexually transmitted diseases.

Historical & Famous Cases

In 1986, it made the news when actor Robin Williams was sued by a former girlfriend for allegedly infecting her with the herpes virus. That case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, in 1992. In 1987, a landmark ruling found that Jane Maharam, then 56, had the right to sue her former husband Robert, also 56, on her claim that  he did not tell her he contracted herpes. The court ruled that people have consensual sex have a legal duty to inform each other about their sexual health.

More recently, in 2004 David Gest argued that the fact Liza Minnelli didn’t tell him she had herpes until after they were married was essentially fraud, which invalidated their prenuptial agreement. In 2006 NFL quarterback and convicted felon Michael Vick settled a herpes case out of court for an undisclosed amount. Sonya Elliott claimed she tested positive for herpes after having sex with Vick in 2003, and said Vick first denied having herpes but later “apologized profusely” for failing to tell her he was infected. And last year, a bizarre “anonymous” case was filed, alleging that an unnamed “A-list celebrity” gave a sexual partner herpes. The plaintiff, who filed anonymously and has not even been identified by gender, is suing for $20 million, claiming sexual battery, intentional as well as negligent “infliction of emotional distress,” and fraud.

Criminal Acts?

In general, lawsuits over STDs fall under tort law, in which one person’s act–whether intentional or not–causes injury to another person. If a tort has occurred, the person committing the act can be held liable for monetary damages. Unfortunately for most plaintiffs in STD cases, these sorts of lawsuits can be expensive to pursue and nearly impossible to prove. As with the cases cited above, herpes has a relatively short incubation period, so it can be easier to prove who had the disease first. Other STDs often have long periods of time with no symptoms, and it can be difficult to prove negligence or intent–or even which partner first transmitted the disease.

When the STD in question is HIV or AIDS, courts have taken a different view. Thirty-seven states have statutes that allow for criminal prosecution of anyone who knows they are infected with HIV and doesn’t disclose this information to a partner. While in many states it’s a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or brief prison sentence, some states have made it a felony. California’s “willful exposure law” makes it a felony that can send the defendant to prison for up to eight years.