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Lottery winner sued over herpes

By Mary Jo Melone
11/20/09 © Health News Florida

When they hear “You have herpes,” some people look for a support group to find out from others how to live with the incurable sexually transmitted virus.
 
Others sue.
 
In February, a California jury awarded a woman $7 million from a wealthy businessman who had herpes for 25 years and didn’t tell her, according to her suit.
 
Now, in Florida, an unemployed Ruskin woman, Kathy Croman, 57, has filed a herpes suit against a wealthy former boyfriend. Her ex, Richard Tinker, won $5 million in the Florida Lottery in 1994.

Croman’s suit says Tinker failed to tell her he had herpes until they had been intimate for several months, and that she was diagnosed with the virus in August 2007. However, Tinker told Health News Florida that he was honest with Croman about his herpes before their relationship began.

He said: “I stopped her in her tracks. I said, ‘I have herpes,’ and she said, ‘What’s herpes?’”
 
Genital herpes is believed to infect 20 percent of the population, according to Natalie Muniz, director of education and communications for Planned Parenthood of North Florida. Many of those infected don’t know they’re infected because they are asymptomatic; even so, they can  spread the disease.

The danger of infecting others is greatly reduced if the carrier faithfully uses condoms. Risk of transmission can be reduced 75 percent by taking anti-viral medications that are available in inexpensive generics. Tinker acknowledged that he did not use condoms or take medication during his relationship with Croman.
 
The medical details – what herpes is, how it is transmitted, what can be done about it – don’tmatter when someone first hears the news, says nurse practitioner Sue Littell, who counsels patients at Planned Parenthood’s Gainesville clinic. There’s shock, and often shame.

“There’s an expression,’’ Littell said. “It takes about 15 minutes to tell a woman she has cervical cancer, but an hour to tell her she has herpes.”
 
Patients worry they’ll never be able to have sex again, that no one will want them. Women worry they’ll be regarded as promiscuous or that they’ll be unable to have children. None of these things is true, Littell said.

“These things happen to nice people,” she said. “That’s what I tell my patients.”

Then there’s the question: Did my sex partner know about the infection and not bother to tell me?
The latter is a crime in Florida. It’s not as severe a crime as failing to disclose HIV, which is a third-degree felony that can bring a term of five years. Failing to disclose herpes and some other sexually transmitted diseases is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.    
 
But Jack Gordon, who has handled half a dozen of these suits, has never heard of such a prosecution – or even a civil suit that has gone to trial. Last year, he said, he represented a woman who was in a 10-year relationship that she believed was monogamous until she became infected. That case was settled out of court, Gordon said.
Herpes-infection suits pose two problems, said Gordon. The first is that the injuries are not obvious and don’t interfere with the plaintiff’s earning capacity.

“They are serious to the persons involved, certainly socially and psychologically, but they are not catastrophic,” he said. In other words, juries aren’t going to pay much, which is a disadvantage to both the plaintiff and the attorney.
 
Also, he said, “It’s a tough claim to prove.”
 
The most private details of a person’s life can get a rough going-over in a herpes case. How does the infectee prove the identity of the infecter?

The battling has already begun in Croman v. Tinker. Kathy Croman’s suit says she dated no one else during their relationship. But the defendant’s attorney, Frank Miranda, has a completely different take. “She voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse, and they were not in a monogamous relationship.”
 
Croman has a police record in Pinellas County for exploitation of the elderly or disabled. In 1999, records say, she pleaded no contest to charges that she moved Harry Tally, 72, into her Belleair home when he was so confused he didn’t know he had sold his condo or even who the President was. According to investigators, Croman took or tried to take more than $280,000 from him by making him think she was his girlfriend.

Croman paid $6,913 in restitution and was released from probation in 2004.
 
--Mary Jo Melone is a free-lance writer in Tampa; she can be reached by e-mail.