Can the TB Patient Be Sued?
posted by Daniel Solove
I’ve been pondering whether the TB patient with the rare hard-to-treat form of the disease who flew on so many flights can be sued by those other passengers whom he may have exposed to the illness. From the New York Times:
The man with a dangerous and hard-to-treat form of tuberculosis, who potentially exposed several hundred airline passengers to the disease, was moved early today from a hospital in Atlanta to one in Denver that specializes in treating respiratory illnesses.
The man, described as a 31-year-old lawyer in Atlanta, was escorted by federal marshals as he walked under his own power from an ambulance to National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. . . .
The man was the first to be placed in forced isolation in over 40 years by federal public health authorities after he traveled to Europe for a wedding and honeymoon after being advised that he had the disease. Health authorities said he posed a risk to airplane passengers, particularly on long, trans-Atlantic flights.
The man isn’t being charged with any crime, since there was no official order for him not to fly. However, he was strongly advised not to fly, but chose to fly to Europe to get married. He then flew on several flights around Europe. And finally, after being informed by the CDC that his TB was even more dangerous than he had thought, he flew back to the US so he could get better treatment:
The man, whose name has not been disclosed, has said he was advised not to travel, but not specifically forbidden. The wedding and honeymoon had apparently been planned for a long time. . . .
Meanwhile public health officials were trying to locate the passengers that sat closest to the man on the trans-Atlantic flights, who are said to be at the most risk for infection. They will be asked to undergo testing for presence of the disease. . . .
Officials of the federal Centers for Disease Control said they contacted the man while he was on vacation in Italy after they learned that he carried the dangerous strain of the disease and advised him to turn himself into Italian health authorities.
Instead, he made his way to Prague and flew from there to Montreal to avoid a United States no-fly list. He drove from there into this country until persuaded to go to a hospital in New York City.
I would think that the people who were near him on those flights would have a decent cause of action against him. If they test positive for the form of TB the man has, I assume he could be sued for negligently spreading a contagious disease. But I wonder how far such a theory might go. Could a person be sued for going to work with the flu and spreading it to others? And even if the passengers don’t test positive, the man’s actions have caused the passengers to suffer considerable fear and anxiety, as well as the time and expense of getting tested. I wonder whether this could give rise to a cause of action as well. Any tort law experts care to opine?