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An Oklahoma man who was mistakenly told he had tested positive for HIV was awarded $1.4 million after he sued a county health agency claiming he is now infected because he engaged in unprotected sex, thinking he had nothing to lose from further exposure. According to court papers, in September and October 1993 Anthony Northcutt, a resident of Oklahoma City, went to the Health Maintenance Clinic operated by the Oklahoma City-County Health Department for blood tests to determine if he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The test results came back negative. But, for reasons that were never fully explained at the trial or in Northcutt’s medical records, he was told that he had tested positive. “We never could really figure out what happened,” said Myron Coleman, general counsel for the county health department. Jerry S. Duncan of Duncan & Magrini and Robert Magrini of Magrini & Hayes, both of Oklahoma City, represented Northcutt. Both Duncan and Magrini declined to discuss the case. Rick Healy of Kline & Kline of Oklahoma City represented the county health department at the trial. He said that the original mistake might have stemmed from the fact that the clinic, which was closed in 1995, was established under a federal grant exclusively to treat patients infected with HIV. “Our clinic was for HIV-positive people. That’s all we got in there. And the nurse looked at his chart and just missed it,” he said. According to Northcutt’s complaint, after he was told that he was carrying the virus that causes AIDS, he underwent medical monitoring and treatment by both doctors and psychiatrists, but the error was not uncovered. According to both court papers and the defense attorneys, Northcutt spiraled into alcoholism, two failed suicide attempts and, ultimately, unprotected sex with men known to have the virus. Healy conceded the county was negligent but he argued that under Oklahoma’s comparative negligence statute, Northcutt was not entitled to recovery. “Yes, we were negligent, we didn’t deny that, but our negligence was superseded by his own negligence,” he said. When the clinic closed in January 1995, Northcutt was told he could receive treatment and monitoring at University Hospital but, according to his complaint, he did not go to the hospital until April 1997. TWO NEGATIVES In June 1997, after two blood tests, Northcutt was told that he had twice tested negative for HIV. He then reviewed his medical records from the clinic and saw the original test result was also negative. Northcutt was retested again in October 1997 and found to be infected with HIV. In his suit, he contended that while undergoing treatment at the county clinic he was not counseled about the risks of reinfection and “did not take preventive measures necessary to protect himself.” Healy argued that Northcutt’s own decisions and behavior were the cause of his infection. “Had he gone to University Hospital before engaging in high-risk sexual activity they would have, as a matter of standard procedure, either received our records and reviewed them or retested him,” he said. “Just as a matter of common sense, he ought to have known better than to have unprotected sex with HIV-positive males.” Coleman said the county is considering an appeal, though no decision has been made. Under state law, the county’s liability is limited to $100,000. Healy, despite losing, was philosophical about the case. “I’m impressed with my citizens here,” the attorney declared. “We are a Republican state, buckle of the Bible Belt, a bunch of Southern Baptist Bible thumpers and a gay guy got a fair shot. That says something, I guess.” Northcutt v. City-County Board of Health of Oklahoma County, No. CJ-98-4016-66 (Oklahoma Co., Okla., Dist. Ct.).

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