Feature Archive

When a Partner Gives You Herpes

Can you sue? Perhaps. Just don't expect an easy win.

WebMD Feature

May 22, 2000 -- It sounded like the kind of case you could take to the bank.

Catherine Leleux of Louisiana was barely 18 years old in 1995 when she was seduced by her Navy recruiter, Petty Officer Paul Sistrunk. Several weeks later, she came down with a case of genital herpes.

Leleux sought out a personal injury lawyer, Lamont Domingue. Struck by her calm, affable demeanor, he agreed to take the case, even though he knew that a sex-related lawsuit in politically conservative Louisiana would be "ugly and hard-fought."

In filing suit, Domingue sidestepped Sistrunk and went after his employer, the federal government. After all, it had the deepest pockets, and it was vulnerable: Navy officials had discharged Sistrunk under "less than honorable conditions" after Leleux's complaint came to light. Domingue thought she could collect a half-million dollars.

But it was not to be: Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Leleux didn't have a case.

Technically speaking, the court said, Sistrunk's failure to disclose his herpes made the sex he had with Catherine nonconsensual, because she would not have agreed to it if she had known about his disease.

Reasoning further, the court held that if the sex was nonconsensual, it was battery. And because battery is intentional, under federal law the U.S. government could not be held liable (as it would have been if the sex had resulted from its negligence).