The plaintiff, while working as an extern at a clinic operated by defendants-appellants, pricked her finger in the course of discarding a needle she had used in attempting to draw blood from an HIV-positive patient. (Further details on how it happened are not in the decision). Subsequent tests for HIV infection all yielded negative results.
Plaintiff asserted claims against defendants for the psychological injuries she suffered due to her fear of contracting AIDS as a result of the needle-stick incident. The jury awarded her $650,000 for her fear of contracting AIDS during the first six months after the needle-stick incident plus $100,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming after the end of that six-month period. Due to a settlement with one defendant that had been held 25% accountable by the jury, that award was reduced by the trial court by to $487, 500 for the AIDS phobia.
But the appellate court did two things: First, it knocked down the $487,500 award to $250,000, because it thought the the “jury’s award for AIDS phobia during the six-month period at issue deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation.” (For more on the subject see How New York Caps Personal Injury Damages.)
More contentiously, it wiped out the $100,000 award for post-traumatic stress disorder, since the plaintiff didn’t test HIV positive after six months.
The elimination of that award was apparently based on the idea that, because only 5% of people will test positive within 6 months of exposure, the injury may not be genuine. The court, in other words, tries to create an objective standard for an inherently subjective human response.
But a well written dissent points out after an analysis of the case law regarding the proof by which emotional distress will be determined as “genuine” or “substantial,” that “Genuineness… is clearly and appropriately a question of fact, not a matter of law.”
Addressing the attempt to create an objective standard for an emotional injury that is subjective in nature, the dissenters wrote:
that statistical results cannot speak to the actual mental state of the individuals being tested. Nor does the majority apply any legal standard found either in the common law or statute in determining that a plaintiff is not entitled, as a matter of law, to compensable damages for psychological harm beyond a fixed period of six months. I submit once again that no such legal standard exists.
With a 3-2 division in the appellate court, the matter is ripe for appeal to New York’s Court of Appeals.
The case is Sims v. Comprehensive Community Dev.
Addendum, 5/9/07 — Law.com has a story from the New York Law Journal on this, ‘Fear of AIDS’ Award Vacated by N.Y. Court