When a Partner Gives You Herpes (cont.)

Worried that a Georgia judge would scuttle the case -- according to Bushnell, some Georgia jurists frown on casual sex and have been known to quote the Bible in their decisions -- the woman opted to settle out of court instead.

On the other hand, in 1998 the Maine Supreme Court ruled against a married woman who tried to make her husband pay for the herpes that he got from his mistress and subsequently gave to her. Legally, there was "no support" for the wife's argument that the husband had breached his duty to be sexually faithful during marriage, the judges wrote.

The fact is STDs are difficult to litigate no matter who's involved -- male or female, married or unmarried. As a result, many plaintiffs are forced to accept out-of-court settlements. Unfortunately, they don't become part of case law, meaning that they can't be used to establish any precedent, and even the financial terms are kept secret. For example, Robin Williams, the San Francisco actor and comedian, fought a $6 million herpes claim by a cocktail waitress, but paid her a settlement in 1992; the amount was not disclosed.

Why Money Alone is Not Enough

But even the most generous settlement can't fully compensate those who have contracted a chronic and sometimes incurable disease. Two of the most common STDs are herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), also known as genital herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes genital warts. (See The Scope of STDs).

Herpes affects 45 million Americans and causes painful lesions around the penis or vulva, along with flu-like symptoms such as fever and headache. HPV affects another 20 million Americans and is believed to be a leading cause of cervical and vulvar cancer. Both genital herpes and genital warts are incurable.

Luckily, there is hope on the horizon, but it comes from medicine and not the law: At least three companies are working on an HPV vaccine for the prevention of cervical cancer, and at least two herpes drugs, called "microbicides," have advanced to Phase II clinical trials.

Such treatments may one day erase the social stigma of STDs, which lawsuits can only hope to ease.

Ashley (not her real name) was infected with herpes by her estranged husband, a member of a wealthy, socially prominent family. Now she feels like an outcast.

"I look at people differently now than before I was infected," she says. "I used to think, 'There's a nice guy, I'll try to meet him.' Now I remember my disease and feel sick to my stomach. My ability to date has been destroyed. I feel mortified and dirty. I'd rather have cancer. There's no shame in that.''

Scott Winokur often writes about health and medical issues.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005 10:52:39 PM