Johns Hopkins University is being sued by 750 plaintiffs seeking $1 billion in compensation for its alleged role in U.S. government experiments during the 1940s and 1950s that deliberately infected subjects in Guatemala with venereal diseases.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, seeks damages for individuals, spouses and children of people infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases through a U.S. government program between 1945 and 1956. The lawsuit also names the Rockefeller Foundation and the drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants.
The suit claims Johns Hopkins officials had "substantial influence" over the studies, controlling some advisory panels, and were involved in planning and authorizing the experiments. In particular, court documents say that a Johns Hopkins doctor chaired the National Research Council committee that approved the proposed study and secured federal funding for it. Three other members of the panel also had ties to the university, the suit claims.
An attorney for Hopkins called the suit "baseless."
"Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government's Guatemala study and its legacy," Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun. "This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs' counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain."
The filing is the latest step in an ongoing battle over the experiments, for which President Barack Obama formally apologized in 2010 after describing them as "clearly unethical." In 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. government involving the same study, but encouraged the plaintiffs to appeal to politicians for compensation.
The experiments were carried out on participants that included mental patients and prison inmates. The purpose of the study was to determine a way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially among troops. Some male subjects were exposed to the bacteria through wounds on their faces or genitalia after failing to become infected through sex with prostitutes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.