A federal judge in Maryland said The Johns Hopkins University, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co (BMY.N) and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s U.S. government experiment that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis.
In a decision on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang rejected the defendants’ argument that a recent Supreme Court decision shielding foreign corporations from lawsuits in U.S. courts over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic corporations absent Congressional authorization.
Chuang’s decision is a victory for 444 victims and relatives of victims suing over the experiment, which was aimed at testing the then-new drug penicillin and stopping the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases.
The experiment echoed the government’s Tuskegee study on black American men who were deliberately left untreated for syphilis even after penicillin was discovered.
It was kept under wraps until a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts discovered it in 2010. U.S. officials apologized for the experiment, and President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president to offer a personal apology.
Chuang said lawsuits against U.S. corporations under the federal Alien Tort Statute were not “categorically foreclosed” by the Supreme Court decision last April 24 in Jesner v Arab Bank Plc covering foreign corporations.