Needle-Stick Victim Can Sue City

Manhattan judge rules trauma can continue even after negative sero-status confirmed

A Manhattan trial judge has ruled that a nurse who worked for a New York City public hospital can sue the hospital for negligence as a result of an incident where she sustained a needle-stick injury while caring for an HIV-infected prisoner from Riker’s Island.

In an opinion published in the New York Law Journal on January 22, Justice Sheila Abudus-Salaam rejected the city’s argument that it was unreasonable for the nurse to claim continued emotional distress from the incident when she had tested HIV-negative six months after it occurred.

While providing care to the patient whom she knew to be HIV-positive, Helen Ornstein suffered a puncture wound from a needle sticking out of the mattress on his bed while she and another nurse were assisting the patient, who was too weak to turn himself over. Although she has repeatedly tested HIV-negative since this incident, Ornstein’s doctor offered testimony that she has developed a post-traumatic stress disorder that makes it impossible for her to resume patient care, due to her overwhelming fear that she will suffer another such needle-stick injury. Ornstein also claims to have suffered adverse side effects from the medications she took after the incident as a precaution to prevent HIV infection from developing.

Decisions by the Appellate Division in the Second Department in Brooklyn, on which the city’s motion relied, have held as a matter of law that damage claims for fear of contracting AIDS may not cover more than six months, since there is a medical consensus that six months of negative tests show that HIV infection is highly unlikely to have occurred.

In rejecting the city’s argument, Abdus-Salaam pointed out that Ornstein’s claim is not for emotional distress due to fear that she contracted HIV infection, but rather for the post-traumatic stress disorder that she developed as a result that prevents her from returning to work. Following the lead from an older opinion by the Appellate Division for the Third Department, based in Albany, the court found that Ornstein was not making a traditional “AIDS phobia” claim at all.

Whether Ornstein can ultimately prevail on the merits of her claim is another question entirely, but the court determined that the “six-month” rule adopted by some appellate courts for “AIDS phobia” cases was not relevant to Ornstein’s emotional distress damage claim.

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