After graduating from college, Mr. J worked as a security officer at a large university.

“What happened once you were told that you had HIV?” his attorney asked.

“I was only 23 years old. I thought about suicide,” Mr. J replied. “I imagined my body disintegrating from this disease and how no one would want to have anything to do with me.

“I stopped caring about my future and got involved with a gang. I sold drugs, carried a gun, and even took part in drive-by shootings. My life was meaningless. I had no life to look forward to.”


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Once he was told that he was actually HIV-negative, Mr. J said, he disassociated himself from the gang and found a job.

Then it was the defense attorney’s turn to present his case. He called Ms. G to the stand.

She testified that Mr. J’s initial symptoms were consistent with an STD and that she had ruled out most of them. The combination of the positive ELISA, the indeterminate Western blot, and the patient’s symptoms convinced her that the HIV diagnosis was correct. But on cross-examination, she admitted that she was unfamiliar with rDNA.

The defense expert was an internal medicine physician who testified that Ms. G had complied with the applicable standard of care. “This patient was clearly at risk for HIV infection based on clinical, historical, and physical examination criteria,” she stated. Ms. G was not required to refer immediately  because, in the short term, a specialist would most likely have only monitored Mr. J’s CD4 count anyway.

But the jury members didn’t buy it.They returned a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded him $350,000.

Legal background
Although Ms. G’s treatment caused no physical injury—and none was alleged—it did raise the question of compensation for emotional distress. The testimony painted the plaintiff as an upstanding young man with a promising future that was derailed by the emotional impact of the HIV diagnosis.

Protecting yourself
No one can be an expert in everything; it is essential to know when to ask for help. In this case, Ms. G was unfamiliar with one of the three HIV tests done on her patient and was apparently unsure about how to interpret the Western blot, given a positive ELISA and a negative rDNA.

In a situation like this, asking for help—either from the lab or from a specialist—could have saved both the patient and clinician a great deal of distress. If you are ever unsure about test results or how to interpret them, get a second opinion.