Nov. 27, 2007 -- When should a person reveal that a loved one has HIV or AIDS?
That is the question at the center of a lawsuit pending before the Illinois Supreme Court, which has many AIDS activists taking the side of a couple accused of hiding their son's HIV status from his fiancee.
A jury in Chicago awarded the fiancee, identified in court papers only as Jane Doe, $2 million in 2004, after she contracted an aggressive form of the disease. An appellate court reversed the jury's decision late last year, ruling that it was the woman's responsibility to get tested earlier.
The lawsuit appears to be one of the few cases in the country that tries to hold a family member responsible for not disclosing that a relative has HIV or AIDS. It highlights a potential conflict between guarding personal privacy and protecting someone from contracting the often-fatal disease.
Elizabeth and Kirkpatrick Dilling denied knowing their son had HIV until shortly before his death in 1999 and said they never lied to his fiancee about his health.
"Typically, confidentiality laws are very protective of HIV status," in order to encourage people to get tested and protect them against discrimination, said Lance Gable, who teaches public health law at Wayne State University School of Law. "That can be at odds with another important goal, which is to prevent the spread of HIV."
Who's Right and Who's Wrong?
If the jury's verdict is upheld by the state Supreme Court, public health law experts say, it could change the legal obligations of a broad group of people in Illinois who know someone who is HIV positive. The ruling would likely be limited, though, because Doe says she specifically asked Elizabeth Dilling whether her son had HIV and says that Dilling lied, which she denies.
"We've developed a very exact, precise law about when a person's HIV status can and cannot be disclosed," said Ann Hilton Fisher, director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, which has intervened on behalf of the Dillings. "If the court reverses this decision, it would really undo that."
Albert Dilling met his fiancee in April 1996, through a personal ad. After a few months, they decided to get married and began having unprotected sex, according to court papers. Though Dilling, then 41, already had HIV, he never told his fiancee, court papers say, and she probably contracted the disease in mid-1996.
Doe says that Dilling's parents knew their son had HIV, but never warned her, even when she became concerned about Dilling's failing health. When asked whether her son might have AIDS, Elizabeth Dilling allegedly told Doe that he had Lyme disease or heavy metal poisoning, the lawsuit claims.
Doe acknowledges that she would have contracted the disease regardless of what the Dillings said, but claims she would have sought treatment earlier had they told her of Albert's condition.
Dilling denies that she knew her son had HIV or AIDS until shortly before he died and denied ever having a conversation with Doe about whether her son had AIDS, according to her lawyer. A state appellate court ruled last year there was not enough evidence for a jury to conclude that the Dillings knew their son had HIV before November 1998.
Doe learned that she had HIV in 1999, long after her lawyer says she would have sought medical care if she knew she was ill. Her fiance died three weeks later.
'She Deserves the Compensation'
The Dillings "deliberately misled and lied to her about a life and death fact, and as a result, she now has a disease that is incurable and is always fatal," said Hall Adams, Doe's attorney. "That's why she deserves the compensation the jury decided she deserves."
Adams declined to make his client available for an interview before the court reached its decision.
The appellate court found that, by late 1998, Doe had reason to suspect that Dilling had HIV and that he might have given her the disease. She should have seen a doctor, rather than relying on the Dillings, the court said.
"My clients feel bad for this woman. Nobody is taking any pleasure in her situation," said David Novoselsky, the Dillings' attorney. Kirkpatrick Dilling has died since the suit was filed. "But they deny that they ever made the statements and her so-called reliance on them was questionable. They never told her not to see a doctor."
Though it was a crime for Dilling to conceal from his fiancee that he had HIV, it is also illegal in many situations in Illinois to reveal that someone else has the disease. Those laws are designed to encourage people to get tested and to prevent AIDS discrimination, said Gable.
A Moral Bind
The laws, though, can put friends or relatives of someone who is HIV positive in a moral bind if they suspect they may be spreading the disease. The AIDS Council argued that even if they knew Dilling had HIV, it would have been illegal for the Dillings to tell their son's fiancee that he had the disease.
"What her boyfriend did was a crime. She had the right to know from him," said Fisher. "But the parents could not and should not have told her."
Public health experts also raised the possibility that holding the Dillings responsible could open the door to similar lawsuits for failing to reveal that a person is at risk of contracting HIV.
Doe's lawyers have said that this case is unusual, because they claim she specifically asked the Dillings whether their son had AIDS. They have said the Dillings should have told Doe that they couldn't answer her questions.
"If someone puts you on the spot, it's not clear what the right answer is," said Scott Burris, a professor at Temple University law school, and the editor of a book on AIDS law.
Jeanne Bergman, director of planning and policy research at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, said, "This is a moral question people need to answer for themselves."