Billion dollar lawsuit filed over study on sexually transmitted diseases

Last Updated Apr 2, 2015 4:39 PM EDT

More than 750 plaintiffs are suing the Johns Hopkins Hospital System Corp. over its role in a series of medical experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s and 1950s during which subjects were infected with venereal diseases.

The lawsuit in Baltimore seeks $1 billion in damages for individuals, spouses and children of people infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases through a U.S. government program between 1945 and 1956.

The suit claims Johns Hopkins officials had "substantial influence" over the studies, controlling some advisory panels, and were involved in planning and authorizing the experiments.

An attorney for Hopkins calls the suit "baseless."

A Hopkins spokesperson said in a statement that the institution "did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala." Hopkins confirmed that faculty members took part in reviewing funding applications, but said this did not warrant a lawsuit against the medical center.

The statement expressed "profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Government in Guatemala," and noted that the ethical standards for conducting medical research have changed significantly in the decades since then.

"For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government's Guatemala study and its legacy. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs' counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain. Plaintiffs' legal claims are not supported by the facts," Hopkins said. "We will vigorously defend the lawsuit."

It's the latest in a series of lawsuits over the studies.

A federal judge in 2012 dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. government involving the same study.