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Medical Experimentation Suits Time Barred

In an unpublished opinion, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that 298 former prisoners waited too long to sue over medical experiments performed on them in jail, between 1961 and 1974.

From the 1950s until 1974, prisoners at the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were deliberately exposed to diseases and given mind-altering drugs. The experiments were performed by the University of Pennsylvania and a team of dermatologists. Many of the tests were apparently harmless, but one former prisoner reported that “his hands and feet swelled grotesquely. Others said they lost feelings in limbs and had bad reactions to psychotropic drugs.”

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the experiments were widely publicized, leading many prisoners to file suit, the latest such action being filed in 1990.

Temple University professor and prison activist Allen Hornblum again reported on the experiments in his 1998 book “Acres of Skin.” See PLN Bookstore. As a result of Professor Hornblum’s book, in 2000, 298 former prisoners brought suit in federal court, asserting that their consent to the experiments was fraudulently obtained.

The district court granted defendant’s summary judgment due to the actions being filed years beyond the applicable statute of limitations.

The Third Circuit agreed that the lower court “correctly determined that the various statutes of limitations that might be applicable had expired as to all plaintiffs.” The only issue before the court was whether the limitations period was tolled by the discovery rule. The court rejected plaintiffs’ tolling argument, however, finding that it was “simply not reasonable to believe that plaintiffs were not aware of the facts underlying this litigation many, many years before bringing suit.”

Concluding that plaintiffs “failed to produce any evidence to justify a tolling of the statute of limitations,” the court upheld the grant of summary judgment to Defendants. See: Abdulaziz v. City of Philadelphia, 47 Fed Appx 131 (3rd Cir. 2002).

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Related legal case

Abdulaziz v. City of Philadelphia