Former patient sues Hopkins, estate over AIDS

December 11, 1990|By Gerri Kobren

A former patient is seeking $32 million in damages from Johns Hopkins Hospital and the estate of the Hopkins surgeon who died of AIDS because the doctor's illness was not disclosed to patients.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, claims that the doctor, Rudolph Almaraz, was obliged to tell patients of his disease and that the hospital should have known he had AIDS. A claim identical to the suit was filed with the state Health Claims Arbitration Office, which handles malpractice claims.

This is the first legal action against the Almaraz estate and the hospital since disclosure a week and a half ago that the prominent surgeon died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The plaintiffs in the suit, former patient Perry Mahoney Rossi and her husband, Dennis T. Rossi, are asking the hospital and the estate together for compensatory damages of $10 million for lack of informed consent, $10 million for fraud in concealing his condition and $2 million for loss of marital consortium. The suit asks for another $10 million in punitive damages.

"Under the law, a physician has to obtain informed consent. He should have told her he had AIDS," said the Rossis' lawyer, Jonathan Schochor.

A 1988 report by the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, cited in the suit, declares that "patients are entitled to expect that their physicians will not increase their exposure to the risk of contracting an infectious disease, even minimally."

If there is such risk, the AMA report continues, "the physician should not engage in that activity."

If the patient knows the physician is infected and chooses to be treated by that physician anyway, the doctor must exercise "great care . . . to ensure that true informed consent is obtained," the report says.

The claims against Hopkins are based on Dr. Almaraz's association with the hospital, where he had been on the staff since January 1984.

"The man was operating at this institution for years," Mr. Schochor said. "In our opinion they should have known" that Dr. Almaraz had AIDS.

The doctor closed his practice March 1 and resigned from Hopkins June 30. He died of AIDS Nov. 16.

In an interview last week, Dr. Almaraz's widow, Betty, indicated that her husband believed his patients were not at risk and took the proper precautions to avoid infecting them.

The risk that the doctor might have transmitted the disease to any patients is remote, experts have said.

Informed of the claim and lawsuit by a reporter, Hopkins attorney Paul Rosenberg refused to comment, saying he had not seen the claim yet.

Dr. Almaraz had performed surgery on an estimated 1,800 patients since joining the Hopkins staff in 1984. He removed a non-malignant lump from Mrs. Rossi's breast at Hopkins in November 1989.

Interviewed yesterday afternoon in Mr. Schochor's office, Mrs. Rossi said she experienced "panic, horror and fear" when she learned from a newspaper account that the doctor had AIDS.

"In November 1989, I dealt with a life-threatening situation," she said. "On Sunday [Dec. 2, when the report was published] I found myself facing a potentially life-threatening situation again."

Mrs. Rossi has had a blood test to determine whether she has been infected with the AIDS virus. But even if the test is negative she will remain worried, she said, because she does not believe the test guarantees that no infection has occurred. "I wish Dr. Almaraz had told me and I could have had the option of walking out the door. That's not the option I was given. He took that choice away from me," Mrs. Rossi said.

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