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Hedgepeth v. Whitman Walker Clinic

October 1, 2009


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-6244-05) (Hon. Robert E. Morin, Trial Judge).

Per curiam.

Argued September 11, 2008

Before RUIZ and REID, Associate Judges,and FARRELL, Senior Judge.*fn1

Concurring opinion by Associate Judge RUIZ, at p. 9.

This appeal presents the court with a question we have addressed before, although not in the context of facts as stark as in this case, namely, whether a patient may recover damages for acute emotional distress resulting from a negligent misdiagnosis of Human Immunodeficiency Virus ("HIV"), where the misdiagnosis did not directly place the patient in physical danger.

There is no dispute that appellant, Terry Hedgepeth, never was HIV-positive, and, indeed, that laboratory test reports made available to appellees indicated that he was not. Nevertheless, because of a series of errors within Whitman Walker Clinic ("WWC"), appellant was misdiagnosed and misinformed that he was HIV-positive. The Superior Court granted summary judgment against appellant and dismissed his complaint, concluding that it was bound by our precedent requiring that a claimant be exposed to a "zone of physical danger" in order to claim negligent infliction of emotional distress. See Williams v. Baker, 572 A.2d 1062, 1064 (D.C. 1990) (en banc). Because as a division we are bound by prior decisions of this court, we too must affirm. See M.A.P v. Ryan, 285 A.2d 310, 312 (D.C. 1971) ("[N]o division of this court will overrule a prior decision of this court[;] . . . such result can only be accomplished by this court en banc.").

I. Facts and Procedural Background

In reviewing the trial court's grant of summary judgment, we must construe the facts in the light most favorable to appellant. See Burt v. First Am. Bank, 490 A.2d 182, 185 (D.C. 1985). The facts, so viewed, that were presented to the court are that after learning that his girlfriend was being treated for HIV, appellant went to WWC and requested an HIV test on December 13, 2000. At WWC, appellant told an intake worker that he "thought [he] had HIV" because he "found out that [his] girlfriend was HIV-positive."*fn2 Relying at least in part on appellant's self-report, the intake worker made a notation in his file that he was HIV-positive. Appellant then underwent a blood test. Blood was drawn at WWC and sent to American Medical Laboratories, Inc. ("AML") for testing. The test administered by AML, an HIV-1/HIV-2 Antibodies ELISA test, was "non-reactive," meaning that appellant was not HIV-positive. WWC admits that because of an erroneous interpretation of the negative test report, a "Client Lab Results" form showed appellant as testing positive for HIV.*fn3 The Client Lab Results form showing appellant as HIV-positive and the negative AML test results were made available to Dr. Mary Fanning, M.D. at WWC. When Dr. Fanning met with appellant, however, she misinformed appellant that he was HIV-positive, and noted in his patient file that he was HIV-positive, but asymptomatic and with a "normal" viral load.*fn4

After telling appellant that he was HIV-positive, WWC filed medical forms that made appellant's treatment at WWC eligible for funding under the Ryan White program. WWC personnel also signed off on an AIDS Drug Assistance Program form to apply for public assistance to pay for HIV medication for appellant. This form indicated that appellant's drug regimen required Combivir and Crixivan. This too was in error, as appellant was never prescribed either one of these drugs by WWC doctors and he never took any HIV medications.

Appellant continued to believe he was HIV-positive for five years, when another blood test revealed he is not positive for HIV. During that time, appellant suffered severe emotional distress. Appellant became depressed, which in turn affected all aspects of his life, including his relationship with his twelve-year-old daughter. Appellant's depression (as well as a knee injury) also eventually led him to lose his job as a restaurant manager. Following his misdiagnosis for HIV, appellant began to have suicidal thoughts, and he was committed to psychiatric wards on two occasions, first at George Washington University Hospital in January of 2001, and, later, at Sibley Hospital in 2002.*fn5 He was prescribed medications for his depression, including Zoloft, Ambien, Trazodone, and Wellbutrin. Despair over the misdiagnosis led appellant to "heavy" use of illegal drugs,*fn6 to suffer from an eating disorder, and to become isolated from his relatives because of the shame he experienced from being HIV-positive. Appellant also began to have sexual intercourse with a woman he knew to be HIV-positive "[b]ecause [he] was diagnosed with HIV and there was no reason for [him] to live."*fn7

In mid-2005, appellant visited a different medical clinic, the Abundant Life Clinic, which ran an ELISA test to confirm his HIV status. The test revealed instead that he was not HIV-positive, and appellant was informed that he was HIV-negative.

II. Analysis

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits . . . show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 41 (D.C. 1979) (quoting Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c)), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078 (1980). This court's review is de novo, and we apply the same standard as the trial court in considering whether a motion for summary judgment should be granted. See Kuder v. United Nat'l Bank, 497 A.2d 1105, 1106-07 (D.C. 1985) (citing Wyman v. Roesner, 439 A.2d 516, 519 (D.C. 1981)).

In Williams v. Baker, 572 A.2d 1062, 1067 (D.C. 1990) (en banc), we abandoned our longstanding rule that negligently inflicted mental distress was compensable only where it resulted from a direct physical impact.We maintained, however, a requirement that there be evidence that the plaintiff was in physical danger before she could recover damages for mental or emotional distress. Id. We held that "if the plaintiff was in the zone of physical danger and was caused by defendant's negligence to ...

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