Tuberculosis privacy suit revived in appeal

Patient says CDC leaked information

ATLANTA --- The Atlanta man who was thrust into the center of a 2007 international tuberculosis scare won a major legal victory Friday when a federal appeals court revived the lawsuit he filed claiming health officials publicized his condition to make an example out of him.


The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that Andrew Speaker didn't show enough evidence that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was to blame for the breach in Speaker's privacy.

The three-judge panel found that there was enough evidence to "raise a reasonable inference, and thus a plausible claim, that the CDC was the source of the disclosures at issue."

Speaker claimed in the lawsuit that the CDC revealed his private medical condition at news conferences beginning in May 2007 to dramatize the possibility that diseases such as TB can be transmitted worldwide. Government attorneys countered that there was no proof the CDC leaked his name to the press, and noted that Speaker, who is himself an attorney, wrote about parts of his ordeal online.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the agency doesn't comment on pending lawsuits, while Speaker said he was "appreciative of the decision."

The lawyer's saga earned international notoriety in May 2007 when he traveled to Europe for his wedding even though he was infected with a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. He decided to fly home immediately when he learned preliminary tests showed he had XDR-TB, a more virulent strain of the disease.

He flew to Montreal, despite warnings from health officials not to board another commercial flight, and drove across the American border. He said he did so because he wanted to be treated in the U.S.

After he returned, he became the first American quarantined by the federal government since 1963, and was sent to a Denver hospital for treatment. Health officials there learned that Speaker was actually infected with a less severe strain of the disease.

The CDC held the first of several news conferences on May 29, 2007, warning that an Atlanta tuberculosis patient had flown overseas. Speaker's name was published two days later in an Associated Press article that was attributed to an anonymous federal law enforcement official and a medical official.

Speaker sued the CDC in April 2009, claiming that federal officials knew he was infected with the lung disease but gave him the go-ahead to travel overseas only to pin the blame on him. The lawsuit said the CDC illegally released his private information, such as his flight to Greece to get married and that he was an Atlanta lawyer.

A federal court dismissed the lawsuit in November 2009, concluding that Speaker didn't show enough evidence that the CDC was to blame for the breach in Speaker's privacy. His attorney urged the appeals court in September to overturn the ruling and give Speaker a chance to rebuild his tarnished reputation.