A legal team that includes an attorney from Maine has been accused of misconduct by defendants in a $1 billion lawsuit brought on behalf of hundreds of Guatemalans who were intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s.

F. Ronald Jenkins

F. Ronald Jenkins of Portland filed the suit four years ago, naming as defendants Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation, whose researchers studied those affected, and the pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, which provided the penicillin to treat them.

The complex case involves two dozen lawyers and already has more than 300 docket entries but a recent motion brought by lawyers for Johns Hopkins and the other defendants contends that the plaintiffs’ claims “are based on manufactured evidence, false sworn statements, and unsupportable allegations that even a cursory investigation would have shown were unfounded.”

Among the allegations were that plaintiffs’ counsel did not reasonably investigate when recruiting individuals for the class action, that they withheld evidence in discovery and that some statements used to identify plaintiffs appear to be false or invalid.

Neither Jenkins nor any other attorney is mentioned by name in the defendants’ motion, which asks the court to bring sanctions and “authorize defendants to pursue discovery to further investigate the misconduct of plaintiffs’ counsel and their agents.”

Jenkins, in an interview Thursday, called the accusations “outrageous and incendiary,” and indicative of how hard “wealthy and powerful institutions” are working to avoid liability.


“Their clients have been accused of aiding and abetting human rights violations,” he said. “I’m proud of the amount of due diligence we did, and I stand by it. There are lawyers who sign clients without doing 10 percent of the diligence we did.”

Both Lauren Colton, an attorney representing Johns Hopkins, and a spokesperson for the school declined to answer questions about the case, referring instead to their motions.

Jenkins said he’s particularly dismayed by the defendants’ accusations because they seem to be dismissive of some claims that already have been acknowledged by government officials and the defendants’ own experts.

“This outrageous motion and the aspersions it casts will not deter us from seeking restorative justice for the victims of these experiments,” he said.


The experiments in question were conducted between 1945 and 1956 and involved exposing vulnerable populations to syphilis and gonorrhea so doctors could try to treat some and leave others untreated to observe what happened to them.


Details were not made public until 2010, when President Obama called his counterpart in Guatemala to apologize. Obama also created a commission to study the experiments, which later concluded the researchers had committed “egregious moral wrongs.”

Some of the Guatemalan victims filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the federal government, which funded the experiments. That lawsuit was dismissed after a judge found the United States immune for actions it committed in other countries.

Jenkins, though, said the researchers and drug company should not be immune from liability for carrying out the experiment.

The study was similar to one conducted by the U.S. government in collaboration with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama between 1932 and 1972 on rural African-American men in the South who had syphilis. The men were never told they had syphilis and weren’t treated, so doctors could study the disease’s progression.

The major difference in the Tuskegee case is that the men were not intentionally infected with syphilis. They already had the disease.

Attorneys for both Johns Hopkins and Bristol Myers Squibb have argued in court filings that the experiment was repugnant but that the study was not conceived by or paid for by them and neither party was aware of the full circumstances.


Jenkins said he was retained in the case by another attorney in Venezuela because of his experience in international law and his success in other complex cases.

In 2013, he won a $25 billion judgment against the Syrian government for attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985 that killed 19 people and injured 107. It was one of the largest judgements in U.S. history and required years of litigation.

In the Guatemala case, Jenkins brought on a Baltimore law firm and lead attorney Paul Bekman because the case was filed in federal court in Maryland and Jenkins is not a member of the bar there.

Since then, Jenkins’ role has largely been research and investigating archives. The recent motion makes no mention of him or his firm.


In March, hundreds of plaintiffs were dropped from the case during the discovery process, leaving behind a little more than 100. Less than a month later, the defendants’ attorneys filed their motion for sanctions and request for discovery and in it criticized the plaintiffs’ counsel for dropping so many plaintiffs after a lengthy and costly discovery.


But Jenkins said that’s how it works and that the judge in this case anticipated the class would be reduced during discovery.

“We didn’t go out there looking for these clients,” he said. “These were clients who were found in Guatemala and screened and tested by the country’s former health minister.”

Jenkins said that doesn’t necessarily mean the individuals removed were not infected, just that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that at trial. He explained that the plaintiffs who were dismissed were family members of victims, usually spouses or children, and there were challenges in proving causation in spousal or generational transfers.

“Our actions in deciding to voluntarily dismiss those claims has strengthened our case, not weakened it,” he said.

Jenkins did acknowledge that one of the challenges for his team has been working with local officials. He said the plaintiffs in many cases were poor, uneducated, spoke no English and were scattered throughout the country.

But he said even if there were problems in vetting plaintiffs, nothing was done in bad faith, as alleged by the defendants. He said for the defendants to use the dismissal of some plaintiffs as a way to label the entire suit as frivolous does a disservice to the victims.

He shared National Archive records that prove Arturo Giron Alvarez, the lead plaintiff, contracted syphilis and was experimented on while a prisoner at the Central Penitentiary in Guatemala City. Jenkins also pointed to testimony from one of the defendants’ own medical experts who agreed that Alvarez was intentionally infected with syphilis as part of a government experiment.

A judge has not yet ruled on the defendants’ motion. They also still have an appeal pending that challenges whether American corporations can be sued under the applicable statute.

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