By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
YOU CAN'T BE too careful, or so goes the dating scene credo these days. And so after one 23-year-old Minneapolis woman--we'll call her Ann--met a friend of a friend--we'll call him John--at a local bar last fall and they started dating, she asked him point blank if he'd been tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. According to Ann, John told her he was clean. Over the next couple of months, they had intercourse four or five times, always using a condom. Then late one night last October, after a few drinks, John and Ann headed back to his apartment, went to bed, and started making love. But a few minutes into it, the condom they were using broke. He put on another one. It broke. And another. It broke, too. And with it, Ann says, "hell broke loose"--this time in the shape of a sexually transmitted disease and a lawsuit.
John--a pharmacist by profession--was served papers naming him as the defendant in a civil suit that could cost him over $50,000 in damages and legal fees. The charge? That he'd failed to inform Ann that he carried what's known as the Human Pappiloma Virus--which causes genital warts--and had, as a result of his "extreme and outrageous conduct," infected her with the disease the night the last condom he was wearing broke.
HPV is nothing new, but in the past decade, the disease has turned into what medical researchers are now calling an epidemic, with over 70 known strains in the U.S. and at least 20 million carriers, many of whom don't know they're infected. All the varieties are highly contagious, and can be passed orally and through even minimal sexual contact--which makes a condom no insurance at all. A 1994 National Cancer Institute study estimated that 15,000 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer that year and 4,600 women would die from the disease; by the turn of the century, both those numbers could jump by a third. HPV is now considered the primary cause of cervical cancer. Left untreated, the virus can also lead to sterility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and be passed to an infant during childbirth. And while the symptomatic warts from HPV can be easily treated, there's no absolute cure. Like all viruses, HPV may go dormant, sometimes for years, but once in the system it's there forever.
Ann knew all this from her training as a contraceptive counselor. But, as she claims in the suit, Ann didn't know her lover--who did not return repeated calls for this article--had HPV until he told her the night they finally broke up. She was diagnosed with the virus in the spring of this year.
"That's when it really hit me--that he'd outright lied to me about his condition all along," Ann says now. "He just wanted to get me into bed, and he was afraid if he told me about it, I'd say no. Which I would have. I was always so cautious, but even so, I caught this virus I can't ever get rid of. I'll always have to be treated for it, always have to tell any lover I ever have in my life. It's so damn scary--you trust someone to tell the truth, and the next thing you know, you've got what could turn into a fatal disease."
Tom Wallrich, Ann's attorney who filed the complaint in Hennepin County on July 18, calls it "very persuasive, pointing to an instance of very reckless behavior in today's risky world. My client did everything possible to protect herself, including asking her partner the right questions and using a condom. Our argument is that the defendant neglected to tell her about his medical status--that he lied, plain and simple--which prevented her from giving informed consent about sex."
Lawsuits along these lines, Wallrich adds, will likely become more common in the near future, with both STDs and civil litigation on the rapid rise. In the past few years, dozens of cases across the country involving HIV- and HPV-infected parties have passed through the courts, and a majority of judges have ruled in the plaintiff's favor with settlements totaling in the millions. Some defendants have lately taken to turning to bankruptcy as a way to avoid paying any damages--a move Wallrich expects John to make should he come out on the losing end. However, in September 1994, a Minnesota court ruled that such settlements could not be included in personal bankruptcies.
The case is expected to come before the court next year.