Fear of HIV and Hepatitis C Not Recoverable from State Hospital Due to Inadvertent Needle Stick

By Michael Zerres

Rules on Right to Recovery Different for Private v. Public Hospitals

The recently decided case of Pravata v. UMDNJ (11/9/06) confirms that claims for emotional stress due to fear of HIV or Hepatitis C virus because a plaintiff was stuck by a needle will not be viable against a public entity such as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. That is because claims against UMDNJ (or any other public entity) are governed by the Tort Claims Act which provides various immunities and limitations on a patient’s right to recover. In Pravata, the plaintiff was a corrections officer who was pricked by a needle in the pocket of an inmate’s pants. It was believed the inmate had procured the needle while a patient at UMDNJ. The inmate subsequently tested positive for HIV. Pravata filed a claim for emotional distress due to his fear of becoming infected with the HIV and/or Hepatitis C virus. The claim was dismissed because the Tort Claims Act does not allow claims for purely “emotional distress” absent actual physical injury or “aggravating circumstances.” The Trial Court, and later on appeal, the Appellate Court, found that being stuck with a needle on a person who has HIV not to be a sufficient “aggravating circumstance” to allow Pravata’s claim to go forward. Had plaintiff’s claim been against a private facility, his claim for emotional distress likely could have gone forward as private hospitals and employees are not granted the same immunities and limitations as public hospitals and employees. In fact, I am pursuing such a case against a private hospital currently. In that case, an electrical contractor working at a Jersey shore hospital was pricked by a needle inadvertently left lying on the floor by an operating room.

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