Federal judge dismisses lawsuit over US medical experiments in Guatemala

A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia on June 13 dismissed a lawsuit filed by seven Guatemalans who alleged that they had been the subject of non-consensual human medical experimentation by the US Public Health Service. In its decision, the court found that under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) the US government is specifically exempt from liability for torts that occur outside of the US. Because the plaintiffs sued government officials who were acting in the capacity of their positions, the claim is automatically converted to a claim against the US government, and the court is bound by the FTCA. In his decision, Judge Reggie Walton acknowledged that “the Guatemala Study is a deeply troubling chapter in our Nation’s history,” but concluded that the court had no authority to provide relief. He suggested that the victims seek a remedy through political means. The Guatemalan government had reportedly requested that the US government provide out-of-court settlements before the lawsuit was filed, but the US did not respond.

The victims filed a class action lawsuit in March 2011. The suit was brought on behalf of all individuals who were subjected to experimentation in Guatemala or were infected to be used as vehicles to infect test subjects for the venereal disease experiments. The complaint alleges that the PHS conducted the human medical experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s to test whether penicillin could also be used as a prophylaxis immediately following exposure to the syphilis bacteria. The plaintiffs sought relief under the Alien Tort Statute, the Fifth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment. Evidence of the PHS program was discovered by professor Susan Reverby (PDF). US President Barack Obama in 2010 apologized to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom for the testing. Reverby’s study shows that the PHS infected more than 700 people in Guatemala with syphilis and gonorrhea. The patients were prisoners and people suffering from mental health problems, and were unaware they were being tested.

From Jurist, June 14. Used with permission.

See our last post on Guatemala.