This week’s ruling by the California Supreme Court that paves the way for partners of unwittingly HIV-infected individuals to sue is getting mixed reviews in San Francisco.
While some experts and activists say the ruling bodes well for those living with AIDS, others say it diminishes the role of individual responsibility in combating the incurable disease.
San Francisco has the highest per capita prevalence of people living with AIDS in the country, according to the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center.
Protecting and respecting yourself and others is key in the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS, said Norman Hampton, who works at the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center’s community center.
Still, not everyone upholds those standards. Some people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, don’t know they have it or don’t bother to find out despite risky behavior.
People who infect their partners, even without the evidence of a positive HIV test, can be sued for damages, the California Supreme Court decided Monday. The court found that people who engage in high-risk behavior have knowledge of a possible infection and therefore should act accordingly to protect others.
"There should be punishment" for passing the virus on to others, Hampton said. "They’re jeopardizing people’s lives."
Roughly 20 percent of the people living with HIV in the U.S. — estimated at more than 1 million — have not yet been diagnosed, accordingto the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some say they believe that lawsuits and seeking damages are not the remedies.
Safe sex is the responsibility of the people involved, not the courts, said Andrea Lindsay, a volunteer with ACTUP San Francisco.
"People have to take charge of their own lives," Lindsay said.
The 4-3 ruling in a case in which a woman accused her ex-husband of giving her HIV on their honeymoon is the court’s first involving allegations of negligent HIV infection. It makes those with "constructive knowledge" of their risk legally liable for infecting others.
Steven Tierney, deputy director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said the ruling offers up numerous legal concerns.
"It seems to me it’s unduly complicated," Tierney said. "You’re dealing with prior knowledge and intent."
The number of heterosexual couples in which one says he or she was infected by the other is relatively limited in the Bay Area, said Dr. Mark Jacobson, an associate professor of medicine at UCSF who also works with the AIDS Program at San Francisco General Hospital.
"Of the overall transmission rates … it’s a small minority" of AIDS cases in San Francisco, Jacobson said.
The physician said he doubts the court’s ruling will have much impact on people’s behavior — gay or straight.
In the gay community, AIDS has been such a prevalent and pressing concern, it’s unlikely the ruling will have much effect, Jacobson said.