Ex-patients of doctor who died of AIDS file suit Estate, hospital named as defendants

November 24, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

More than 30 former patients of a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon who died of AIDS filed lawsuits yesterday against the hospital and the doctor's estate, claiming they have suffered emotional distress while worrying that they might contract the disease.

The filing of the lawsuits -- which seek a total of $640 million from the hospital and the estate of Dr. Rudolph Almaraz -- comes eight months after the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and ruled that physicians infected with the human immunodeficiency virus may be held liable if they fail to disclose their conditions. That ruling came in a test case filed on behalf of a patient of Dr. Almaraz, a Hopkins surgeon who died in 1990 of an AIDS-related illness.

The patients did not learn that Dr. Almaraz, who specialized in breast surgery, had AIDS until reading about it in the newspaper after his death, according to the suit.

After his death, Hopkins sent letters to about 1,800 of the surgeon's former patients to disclose his illness and to assure them that their risk of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus was minimal. In 1991, state health officials said TC seven-month investigation yielded no evidence that any patients contracted the AIDS virus from Dr. Almaraz.

That study is of little comfort to the patients who have filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court, said their lawyer, Jonathan Schochor. Mr. Schochor acknowledged that none of his clients have shown any signs of having acquired the AIDS virus, but he said the emotional toll continues because tests are not fool-proof.

"The plaintiffs now live in daily fear of having been exposed to the risk of the disease, which can take up to 15 years to show any signs of symptoms," the suit states.

Mr. Schochor filed suit on behalf of former patient Perry Mahoney Rossi and her husband, Dennis T. Rossi, a week and a half after the disclosure that Dr. Almaraz had died of AIDS.

Mr. Schochor unsuccessfully attempted to gain class-action status for the suit, which was dismissed in 1991 by Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan. In reversing the dismissal, the Court of Appeals cited an American Medical Association policy statement that physicians should be tested for the virus that causes AIDS and disclose their condition to a public health officer if the result is positive.

Dr. Almaraz's negligence about disclosing his illness created anxiety for patients from the time they learned of his condition until they received negative results on their HIV tests, the appeals court ruled.

The period subject to claims under the appeals court ruling was only about a week, lawyers for the estate and the hospital said yesterday.

The patients suffered no more than a "couple of headaches and stomach aches for a couple of days," said Deborah S. Byrnes, lawyer for the surgeon's estate. Ms. Byrnes called the case "very defensible" and a "minor damage case because nothing happened to these people."

She also noted that only a small percentage of the surgeon's patients are pursuing legal action.

Paul F. Strain, a lawyer for Hopkins, said, "When we get to trial on the case of those few who decided to sue, we'll have an opportunity to show [that] Johns Hopkins Hospital did nothing wrong and really guided itself at all times by the best interest of its patients."

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