A federal judge has warded $469,051 to a U.S. foreign service officer's wife who was paralyzed after she was routinely inoculated against rabies by a State Department nurse.
U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer ordered the federal government to pay the award -- believed to be the first ever granted in connection with a routine government vaccination program -- to 57-year-old Margaret L. Hitchcock, who is totally disabled. He awarded another $50,000 to her husband, Wilbur W. Hitchcock, a career foreign service officer.
Oberdorfer found that the antirabies vaccination, which is no longer given by the State Department, was unnecessary for the couple's new assignment -- they were being transfered to Argentina. He also ruled that Mrs. Hitchcock was not warned of the risk involved when she was given the injection of the drug made from duck embryos.
In one apparently unprecedented aspect of the ruling, Oberdorfer also found that Mrs. Hitchcock should be paid substantial damages solely on the basis of her role as diplomat's wife because wives of foreign servie officers are expected to "contribute to their husband's careers."
He said that, on that basis, Mrs. Hitchcock should receive one-half of what her husband would have received from the federal government if he had been disabled in the line of duty. That accounted for approximately $300,000 of the amount give to her, according to Oberdorfer's opinion in the case.
The events culminating in the award to Mrs. Hitchcock began in early 1972, when he was assigned to Argentina as deputy chief of the U.S. mission there. He had previously been assigned to Quebec and various other overseas posts.
He and his wife reported to the Foreign Service Institute in Rosslyn in May and June of that year for a series of routine inoculations before moving to Argentina, according to the parties in the case.
Among the shots given by a State Department nurse was the antirabies vaccine, known as DEV. No doctor was present and there was no warning given about possible side-effects, according to testimony in the case.
After the first of two injections in that two-month period, Mrs. Hitchcock said she felt a "tiredness" and "heaviness" in her legs. After the second shot, she said, she began having difficulty climbing stairs.
Over the next four years, the paralysis developed to the point where she is now confined to a wheelchair and is "permanently and totallly disabled," Oberdorfer found. He said she is "no longer able to perform the functions of a foreign service officer's wife." She is suffering for an illness that destroys a patient's nerves -- similar to multiple sclerosis, he said.
Government attorneys had argued there was no proof that the injections actually led to Mrs. Hitchcock's illness, so the government should not be held liable. "While Mrs. Hitchcock's current condition is a great personal tragedy, it is not the fault of the United State's government," the government's attorney said.
Oberdorfer found, however, that either the shots caused her paralyzed or triggers an otherwise dormant disease she already had.
He said further that the vaccine should not even have been administered to her because it was only suggested for persons who were likely to be exposed to rabies.
He said the likelihood of Mrs. Hitchcock's contracting rabies was "relatively minor," since most of the rabies outbreaks reported in Argentina involved farm animals "not likely to be encountered by the wife of a foreign service officer residing in the city of Buenos Aires."
A reasonable person would not have concluded that Mrs. Hitchcock, a then 51-year-old woman, planning to live in the embassy section of the city of Buenos Aires, was a 'high risk' individual for whom rabies was a 'constant threat,'" Oberdorfer said.
The judge awarded Mrs. Hitchcock $319.839 for compensatory damages $99,212 for medical expenses, and $50,000 in pain and suffering damages.
Mrs. Hitchcock's attorneys -- Robert C. Liotta, Elise Haldane, and Nathan Finkelstein -- said the shots were being given by the State Department and the Peace Corps at the time, but that the shots are no longer given by any federal agencies.
The attorneys said their contingency fee arrangement with the Hitchcocks would allow them to recieve up to 25 percent of the total award, but noted that the judge could later reduce that amount.
Government attorneys indicated yesterday they would probably would appeal the award.