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U.S. Offers Guatemala Health Aid, Wants Medical Experimentation Lawsuit Dismissed

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The United States has offered Guatemala health aid, while at the same time it sought to have a lawsuit filed on behalf of Guatemalans injured by controversial medical experiments conducted in the late 1940 dismissed. In motions filed Monday, the U.S. rejected the grounds of the lawsuit, which seeks compensation on behalf Guatemalans who were intentionally infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STD) by U.S. government researchers over 60 years ago.

The federal government seeks dismissal of a 2011 lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims of the Guatemalan medical experiments conducted by U.S. government researchers in 1946-1948. One day after the Department of Justices’ filing seeking dismissal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), one of the defendants, announced it pledged $1.8 million to assist Guatemalan health authorities to fight STDs and improve research with human subjects.

Parker Waichman LLP, a national law firm, just announced its opposition to the motions. Last March, Parker Waichman LLP and a partner firm, filed the class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against HHS. The lawsuit also names eight current federal officials, including HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, and Thomas Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The filing was made on behalf of the Guatemalan medical experimentation victims (case number 1:11-cv-00527). As the government admitted, the lawsuit “arises out of a deeply troubling chapter in our nation’s history.”

In addition to compensatory and punitive damages for victims of the Guatemalan experiments and their descendants, the lawsuit seeks a declaration that the defendants violated human rights, and an injunction to prohibit further abuses against Guatemalan residents.

The U.S. government, in its initial response to the class-action, argued that it is immune to the lawsuit, noting that the harm took place in a foreign country and that the Guatemalans have not yet exhausted administrative solutions, explained CNN. Because of this, the government argued, the “U.S. has sovereign immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act,” said CNN, citing the motion. According to the government, the Supreme Court “clarified” that the immunity statute “bars all claims based on any injury suffered in a foreign country, regardless of where the tortuous act or omission occurred,” according to CNN.

According to the federal complaint, between 1946 and 1948, U.S. government medical researchers working in Guatemala intentionally infected upwards of 1,300 prisoners, soldiers and psychiatric patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted disease without their knowledge or permission in order to investigate the efficacy of penicillin in treating the diseases, Parker Waichman explained. The lawsuit cites two causes of action arising under the Alien Tort Statute for violations of the international prohibitions against medical experimentation on non-consenting human subjects and against cruel, inhuman degrading treatment; and two causes arising under the U.S. Constitution, for the violation of the victims’ right to due process and for subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.

The doctor who led the Guatemalan experiments, John C. Cutler, who helped coordinate the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama, study where 600 black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades starting in 1932, to follow the course of the treatable disease. The lawsuit alleges the decision to conduct research in Guatemala was part of a deliberate plan to continue the Tuskegee testing offshore, where it would not be subject to the same level of oversight as in the U.S., said Parker Waichman.

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