Johns Hopkins, Bristol-Myers Squibb face $1B suit for roles in 1940s syphilis infections

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A federal judge said Johns Hopkins University, drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s U.S. government experiment that gave hundreds of Guatemalans syphilis, according to Reuters.

Several physicians from the Baltimore-based university and Rockefeller Foundation were involved in the experiment, as well as four executives from Bristol-Myers' predecessors, Bristol Laboratories and the Squibb Institute, according to the complaint.

In a Jan. 3 decision, the judge rejected the defendants' argument that a Supreme Court decision shielding foreign companies from being sued in U.S. courts over human rights abuses outside the country also applied to domestic corporations absent congressional authorization.

The decision is a victory for the 444 victims and their relatives suing over the experiment, which was aimed at testing the then-new drug penicillin and preventing sexually transmitted diseases from spreading.

The experiment was hidden until a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts discovered it in 2010. U.S. officials apologized for the experiment, and President Barack Obama called Guatemala's president to personally apologize.

Allowing the Guatemala lawsuit would "promote harmony" by giving foreign plaintiffs a remedy in U.S. courts for international law violations by U.S. corporations, the judge said.

Hopkins, the Rockefeller Foundation and their lawyers did not immediately respond to Reuters' requests for comment.

A Bristol-Myers spokesperson declined to comment.

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