Connecticut Supreme Court Rules HIV Occupational Hazard for Prison Guards
The Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday ruled 5-2 that HIV is an occupational hazard for prison guards who serve in emergency response units, a decision that will allow guards who contract the virus on the job to seek workers' compensation, the Hartford Courant reports. The case stemmed from a workers' compensation claim filed by the widow of an unnamed guard at the Bridgeport Correctional Center. The guard frequently was exposed to inmates' blood when he broke up fights and responded to medical emergencies. He tested HIV-positive in 1992 and died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1993. The state workers' compensation commission denied the widow's claim that her husband's death was the result of an occupational hazard, and she appealed (Tuohy, Hartford Courant, 5/4). In the ruling, the court stressed the high HIV prevalence in prison populations as representing a "unique and hazardous job environment," according to the AP/Long Island Newsday. Justice Flemming Norcott wrote, "Breaking up altercations and riots in an inmate population with an HIV infection level of one in 20 -- more than 70 times greater than the infection rate of the nonincarcerated population -- is peculiar to the decedent's occupation" (Apuzzo, AP/Long Island Newsday, 5/3). In a dissenting opinion, Justice Christine Vertefeuille wrote that there is "no evidence" that prison guards are at increased risk of HIV infection because of their duties, according to the Courant. Vertefeuille wrote, "I believe that the majority unduly discounts the highly probative fact that the only work-related HIV infection in the correction department involved a health care provider infected by a needle stick." The minority noted that there is "minimal" chance for infection during "splash incident[s]" in which blood or bodily fluid comes in contact with skin or mucous membranes, according to the Courant.
Other Guards, Reaction
Although the decision will allow prison guards serving on emergency response units to seek workers' compensation for HIV infection on the job, the ruling does not cover other guards, including line officers who "routinely" break up fights and are exposed to blood, according to the Courant (Hartford Courant, 5/4). Chief Justice William Sullivan sided with the majority but wrote an additional opinion saying that the ruling should extend to all prison guards, according to the AP/Newsday. "It is wrong to leave correction officers in a state of uncertainty and to create the need for additional future litigation," Sullivan wrote. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) said that the court "reached a plausible and reasonable result, which is very limited in impact," adding, "It affects only corrections employees who are members of these emergency response teams, numbering fewer than 100." Jon Pepe, president of the Connecticut State Prison Employees Union, said that although the ruling was a "step in the right direction," it leaves "too many officers unprotected," according to the AP/Newsday. He added, "All correction officers are emergency responders when they go to the facility. ... We get exposed to inmates' blood, urine and body fluids constantly" (AP/Long Island Newsday, 5/3). Pepe said that union leaders will meet to discuss the ruling and could seek regulations that expand to all prison officers, according to the Courant (Hartford Courant, 5/4). State Department of Correction spokesperson Brian Garnett said that officials are reviewing the ruling (AP/Long Island Newsday, 5/3).