An Oregon jury has awarded $900,000 to a woman who claimed a retired dentist infected her with genital herpes, in a rare case in which a dispute over a sexually transmitted disease went to a jury trial.
The 49-year-old woman, who filed the suit under a pseudonym, testified last week that she suffered painful outbreaks and spiraled into depression following a sexual encounter with the 69-year-old man she met through the dating website eHarmony.
"I told the jury he's dangerous, and I believe he is," said Randall Vogt, the attorney for the woman, who declined to be interviewed.
High-profile lawsuits accusing celebrities of herpes transmission have been in the news for a quarter-century, but such lawsuits remain relatively rare and typically do not go to trial. The award issued Friday is believed to be the largest of its kind in Oregon. A similar 1996 case ended in a $550,000 settlement.
Vogt said the cases are uncommon because they are difficult to prove and typically embarrassing for the claimants. Moreover, it does not make sense to pursue a civil lawsuit unless the defendant has the money to pay a potential judgment.
The retired dentist, whose name was also omitted from the lawsuit, has had herpes since 1991. He testified he did not know he was contagious because he was not experiencing an active outbreak at the time the pair had sex, which was during their fourth date.
Roughly 1 of 6 adults in the United States has genital herpes, and transmission can occur regardless of whether infected persons have visible sores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suit alleged negligence and battery. On the question of negligence, the jury found the man 75 percent responsible and the woman 25 percent. The jurors determined the dentist committed battery because he intentionally engaged in an activity that harmed his date.
"We all felt he should have told her," juror Noah Brimhall told The Oregonian newspaper. "He had the responsibility to tell her."
The dentist's attorney, Shawn Lillegren, argued that the woman was negligent because she did not demand that his client wear a condom. He also portrayed the woman as greedy in his closing argument to jurors.
"Go for a million _ that's plaintiff's message," he said, according to The Oregonian. "God bless America. Go for it. Got some coffee to spill on me?"
Lillegren did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday; it was unknown whether his client is considering an appeal.
Vogt said his client handed the dentist a condom, but he did not wear it and "the advance overtook her too quickly."
Later, while the two were lying in bed, the man told the woman he had herpes, Vogt said. She asked him to leave.
The woman received a clean bill of health a few months before having sex with the man on May 25, 2010, and tested positive for herpes less than two weeks later. Vogt said the quick medical test was crucial in proving the case.
Besides suffering from painful outbreaks, Vogt said his client eventually lost a job because of her depression. The viruses that cause herpes are incurable, though symptoms can be managed with medication.
"It made her feel like she needed to isolate herself from society, and she became a recluse," he said. "She was interested in finding a husband but pretty much dropped efforts in that direction because of the herpes."