Employer's Liability Limited in Case Involving HIV Exposure

March 8, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A New York state court of appeals has ruled that an employer's liability for emotional damages related to HIV exposure is limited to six months.

In reversing a state Supreme Court decision, the appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s claim of post-traumatic stress disorder unrelated to AIDS phobia was an “end-run around the six-month AIDS phobia restriction on damages.”

In addition the opinion said that, if it is reasonable to limit an AIDS phobia claim for damages to six months, then it is also reasonable to limit to six months a claim of emotional damages stemming from the same initial incident.

The plaintiff, Helen Ornstein, was a part-time nurse in the emergency ward of Bellevue Hospital.   While helping to roll over a patient who had AIDS, a needle stuck her in the thumb through a double layer of gloves.

She was treated with anti-viral medication and was tested for HIV, with all negative results, every three months for a year following the incident.   However, Ornstein claimed she began having panic attacks soon after the incident.   A psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorder due to the incident, and Ornstein claimed these conditions kept her from working.

She sued the Health and Hospitals Corporation and the doctor who left the needle in the patient’s bed, seeking damages for emotional injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and recurrent major depressive disorder. She said her claim was the traditional tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress, which is not subject to the six-month limitation followed by the state courts.The defendants asked for claims for emotional damages sustained more than six months after the incident to be dismissed, based on the medical consensus that it is highly unlikely that a person who tests HIV negative more than 6 months after a potential exposure will later test positive.   The motion was denied, and defendants appealed.

The opinion in Ornstein v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation is  here .