The huge amount of damages awarded to the former lover of Rock Hudson sends a powerful message that sex partners have a legal duty to warn each other if they have a sexually transmitted disease, legal experts said Friday.
"The verdict shows that we're not going to tolerate non-disclosure by sexual partners or others who conspire to keep infection secret," said Margaret Davis, a Los Angeles attorney."If you know you may be faced with millions of dollars in damages, you're far less likely to utter a white lie," added Davis, who specializes in litigation involving sexually transmitted diseases.
After a dramatic two-month trial, a Superior Court jury Friday awarded Marc Christian $7.25 million in damages on top of a previous $14.5 million award, for a total of $21.75 million.
Christian, a 35-year-old former bartender, alleged that Hudson and his secretary conspired to conceal the late actor's AIDS diagnosis so Hudson and Christian could continue their sexual relationship.
On Wednesday, Christian won $14.5 million against Hudson's estate and the secretary, Mark Miller, as compensation for the emotional distress he suffered on learning eventually that his lover had AIDS. The $7.25 million represented punitive and exemplary damages against Miller.
Tom Coleman, director of legal services for the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, said there had been several other lawsuits by people seeking damages from lovers infected with a sexually transmitted disease.
Like Christian, some plaintiffs had not caught the disease themselves but pleaded severe emotional distress from an increased fear of infection.
But he added, "What's novel in this case is the people involved and the amount of damages. The intent of the jury is to show that disclosure is a legal as well as moral requirement for people having sex."
Some members of the gay community said the verdict may send out the wrong message.
"It tells people that if they have unprotected sex and become exposed to the AIDS virus, it is somehow someone else's fault and not their own," said Benjamin Schatz, founder of the San Francisco-based National Gay Rights Advocates which handles civil rights cases for homosexuals.
"What we need to be doing is encouraging people to take individual responsibility for protecting themselves, and that is something that was ignored by this case," he said.
Coleman, however, said nobody would risk unprotected sex in the hope they could win a large jury judgment. "Who would want to take the risk even for 14 million dollars?" he said.
Most experts agreed that the verdict would not lead to a deluge of future litigation by sexual partners. "The decision to sue in these kinds of cases is profoundly personal," said Davis. "There's also not a lot of money in most of these cases."
"While there may be lawyers who want to file suits like this, any plaintiff in such a case opens up his or her entire sexual history," Schatz said.