A California court rejected millionaire Thomas Redmond's appeal on Monday, upholding a jury's earlier verdict that he is responsible for $6.75 million in damages for infecting his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Behr, with herpes. The award will cover physical and mental suffering, as well as past and future medical expenses.
"It does not strike me as an outlandish amount," said Steve Sugarman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "As I understand it genital herpes is a lifetime bad-news kind of deal to have."
Before they had sex for the first time, Behr told Redmond that she "was free of disease," according to court documents. In response, Redmond said he was also "healthy."
Redmond first learned he had herpes in 1975.
While Redmond, then 71, did not tell Behr he had herpes, he did tell her that he had a penile implant because of prostate cancer. He would not tell her he had a sexually transmitted disease until more than four months later, well after they had already had unprotected sex several times.
"I've had it for a long time, 30 years," Redmond, according to Behr, told her one evening. "And I think I'm having an outbreak so we can't have sex." They did not have sex that night, but the next day, Redmond said he was wrong about having an outbreak and that it was "okay" to have sex.
Herpes transmission can happen regardless of whether infected persons have visible sores or an active outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An infected man is also more likely to infect his female partner with herpes.
Multi-million dollar lawsuits for herpes transmission are not without precedent. The most famous cases include Tony Bennett, who was sued for $90 million for infecting a partner with herpes in 1985; Robin Williams, sued for $6.2 million in 1986; and Michael Vick, sued for an unknown sum in 2005. Williams and Vick settled out of court. Bennett produced medical records claiming he did not have herpes, and countersued for defamation for $100 million.
Time and again, courts have decided that if someone is infected, aware of it and is sexually active, that person has a duty to inform a partner. Indeed, in November of 2010, less than two years after Behr's victory, a Los Angeles court awarded $2.49 million in damages to a woman infected with herpes by an unfaithful husband.
"I think that the juries acknowledged the severity of the STD transmission and what that means -- the kind of impact that has on an individual for the rest of his or her life personally and socially," said David Baron, a partner with Slovak, Baron & Empey LLP, the law firm that represented both Behr and the wife awarded nearly $2.5 million in November.
If it looks as though only the rich and famous are targets for herpes lawsuits, that may be because such cases are rarely settled by insurance companies. As such, victims seeking compensation for medical bills or physical pain from partners who deliberately failed to disclose their diseaes, are likely to end up with nothing unless that partner has deep pockets.
But this is not easy money. Court proceedings for lawsuits like Behr's can be a grueling process.
"People's sexual history is dragged out [in court]. Opposing counsel is going to scour the playing field to find previous partners … [to] find any other partners that had this disease to raise the specter of doubt," said Baron.
Despite the embarrassment, the cases send a strong message that staying mum about sexual diseases is a bad and potentially costly decision.
The two California cases put the responsibility of disclosure on infected partners, said Baron. People have to be responsible for the diseases they carry, and they have to tell their partners so they can assess what kind of risk – if any – they want to assume.
Anything less than full disclosure, according to these court rulings, is reckless, irresponsible and potentially very, very expensive.