• Key point: A woman cannot sue her former husband as a result of her fear of contracting AIDS because of the former husband’s adulterous relationship.
• In a case that will be of interest to ministers who counsel with divorced persons, an Idaho court ruled that a woman could not sue her former husband on the basis of her fear of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases because of his extramarital affairs while the two were married. During the last several months of the couple’s marriage, the husband was engaged in an extramarital affair without the wife’s knowledge. When she discovered the affair, the husband filed for divorce. After learning of her husband’s affair, the wife experienced great distress over the possibility that she may have contracted AIDS or some other sexually transmitted disease as a result of her husband’s actions. She sued her former husband, and his girlfriend, for money damages to compensate her for her distress. A trial court dismissed the case and the former wife appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that many other courts have allowed persons to sue for emotional distress resulting from a fear of developing a disease in the future that has an incubation period (such as cancer, tuberculosis, and AIDS). Such courts have permitted victims to sue only if their mental distress is genuine and their fear reasonable. The court concluded that the former wife’s fear was genuine, and then addressed the issue of whether or not her fear was reasonable. It concluded that it was not. The court observed that in order to sue, a person’s fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease “must be based on more than the mere possibility of exposure to a disease or disease-causing agent.” It must be based on actual and proven exposure to the disease in question. The court noted that “[t]o hold otherwise would invite claims, and allow recovery, for the fear of AIDS where the plaintiff had undergone a blood transfusion, for the fear of developing tuberculosis based on evidence that a person had coughed in the plaintiff’s face, or for fear of cancer where the plaintiff had inhaled or ingested an unknown substance, all without any proof that a disease-causing agent was present.” The court noted that the basis of the former wife’s fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease was not actual exposure, but rather the possibility of exposure if the woman with whom her husband was having an affair was infected with such a disease. The court concluded that “we decline to extend the law to recognize emotional injuries on so remote and tenuous a basis, where there is no showing that [the husband’s girlfriend] actually was infected with or suffers from any sexually transmitted disease.” However, the court also ruled that “emotional distress resulting from a fear of contracting a disease may constitute a compensable injury in Idaho” if the victim can demonstrate genuine emotional distress and actual exposure to the disease that is the basis for concern. Neal v. Neal, 873 P.2d 881 (Idaho App. 1994).
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