1. Section Editor(s): Klein, Cathy A. MSN, MSEd, APN, Esq., Legal File Editor

Article Content

The time frame for a clinician to claim emotional distress after being pricked by a needle used on an AIDS patient can go beyond the 6-month incubation period.

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An Accidental Needlestick

An emergency room nurse was caring for a patient with AIDS when she turned him over in his bed and a needle lying on the mattress punctured the nurse's thumb. The nurse immediately began treatment with antiviral medication.


The patient had very high levels of the AIDS virus in his blood. Over the following months, the nurse's HIV tests were normal. However, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was not able to return to work.


The nurse sued the New York hospital where she worked for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The defendant hospital moved to limit her damages to the 6-month period the AIDS virus would have developed after the stick, claiming she had no reasonable fear of contracting the virus after the 6 months had passed.


Claiming Emotional Distress

In considering the hospital's argument, the court determined the nurse was claiming emotional distress and not the fear of contracting AIDS. Therefore, the court ruled that the 6-month incubation period was not relevant to her case.


The defendant hospital relied on other cases in which those plaintiffs claimed to suffer specifically from AIDS phobia. The court ruled in this case, the nurse claimed psychological harm and she continued to suffer even after knowing the 6-month period passed and she would not contract HIV.


The court relied on an appellate case that ruled the plaintiff could pursue an emotional distress claim where there is a likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress arising from special circumstances.


In the case of the emergency room nurse, the court determined she was aware the patient had AIDS, and she suffered horribly when the needle in his bed stuck her. The nurse introduced evidence from her psychiatrist, which documented that she continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder even a year after being stuck.


Analyzing Issues

This case exemplifies how courts carefully analyze issues and "split hairs" when considering their rulings. The court had previous cases to guide a ruling either way-that is, to limit the nurse's emotional distress damages to 6 months or not. The court looked closely at what the nurse specifically alleged and relied upon the case law that more closely fit her allegation of post-traumatic stress disorder rather than AIDS phobia.