Patients cannot collect damages from a doctor with AIDS based solely on their fear of contracting the disease, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday in what was seen as a decision with national significance.
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan threw out two lawsuits filed by patients who were afraid they would contract AIDS from a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon who operated on them for breast cancer in 1988 and 1989 and later died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The patients had not tested positive for the AIDS virus, but they argued in the suit that they should be compensated by the hospital and the doctor because they had been terrified to learn Dr. Rudolph Almaraz had the disease.
In one case, Perry M. Rossi of Severna Park sought $32 million from the doctor's estate and the hospital, saying she experienced "panic, horror and fear." Mrs. Rossi also claimed the hospital should have been required to tell its patients that a surgeon had AIDS.
But the judge said no accident had happened during the surgery that would lead her to believe the doctor's blood had entered her body.
Dr. Almaraz was a widely respected cancer surgeon who treated about 1,800 patients at Hopkins, many of whom had breast cancer.
Attorneys for the two patients who filed suit said they expected to appeal the decision.
"Social policy such as this will create a haven in Maryland for AIDS-infected doctors who will not have to tell their patients they have AIDS, if the decision is left to stand," said Jonathan Schochor, the attorney representing Mrs. Rossi.
But Hopkins' attorney said a hospital that treated AIDS patients every day would have become a victim itself if the court had ruled otherwise.
"I think this is going to be a very important national precedent because Johns Hopkins was one of the first hospitals subjected to this kind of a suit," said Paul F. Strain, the hospital's attorney. "This extremely
reasonable opinion will carry a lot of weight in Maryland and around the country."
However, the judge never ruled on the legal issue of whether the hospital should inform patients that their doctor had AIDS.
Judge Kaplan said he would dismiss similar cases brought against a hospital or doctor if the patient could not show he had contact with the infected doctor's blood.
The ruling is not likely to discourage similar suits, however. Attorney Howard Janet said he had not read the decision or talked to his clients, but he expected to file some 15 to 20 cases against the hospital on behalf of other patients.
"For each of them, there is an extended period of tremendous anxiety waiting for the AIDS tests to come back," he said.
Yesterday's decision comes one day after the Maryland Division of Correction disclosed that one and possibly two dentists who treated thousands of inmates in the state prison system had died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.