Nearly 800 former research subjects and their families filed a $1 billion lawsuit Wednesday against Johns Hopkins University, blaming the institution for its role in 1940s and 1950s government experiments in Guatemala that infected hundreds with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The lawsuit seeks to hold the university responsible for the experiments, because its doctors held important roles on panels that reviewed federal spending on sexually-transmitted-disease research, including on the experiments in Guatemala. It also names the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants.
University officials said they did not “initiate, pay for, direct or conduct” the Guatemala studies and will fight the lawsuit.
“For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy,” Kim Hoppe, a university spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”
The lawsuit seeks compensation for victims to whom President Obama apologized in 2010, expressing “deep regret” for the experiments. In 2011, a presidential panel on biological research ethics exposed gruesome details of the studies.
The plaintiffs include the estates and families of 124 people who died from complications of diseases that they contracted through the study.
The victims sued eight U.S. government officials over the study in 2011, but a federal judge dismissed the case, saying that the government could not be held liable for actions committed in another country.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this report.