January 1825, 1996
Suing Uncle Eddie
A class action suit against the estate of Eddie Savitz raises serious issues surrounding AIDS and the law.
By Howard Altman
The controversy surrounding Eddie Savitz, who lured as many as 5,000 young men into his Center City apartment for sex and the collection of underwear and feces, did not end with his death in 1993.
Two weeks ago Common Pleas Court Judge Victor DiNubile tentatively approved the settlement procedure for a class action suit brought against Savitz's estate. At stake is the disbursement of $56,000 to those who can prove they either contracted AIDS or feared contracting AIDS after having sexual contact with Savitz.
Val Wilson, attorney for five men who filed the class action, says the suit is "unusual" and "precedent setting" because it places the onus on those with sexual diseases to warn their potential partners. Howard Kaufman, attorney for the Savitz estate, says that even though Savitz kept records of those with whom he had sex, Savitz only engaged in oral sex, which he says does not expose either party to risk of HIV.
However, Kaufman's assessment of risk flies in the face of health officials who consider anyone engaged in unprotected oral sex at risk of contracting AIDS. All parties agree that anal intercourse is the most AIDS-risky sexual activity.
Regardless of the legal issues, this case troubles AIDS activists, who say that the bottom line is that responsibility for AIDS prevention always lies with the individual.
According to court records dated Jan. 4, anyone who suspects that they contracted AIDS or suffered emotional damage as the result of sexual contact with Savitz has until March 12 to join the class action. Anyone not filing a claim by that date would have to sue the estate on their own.
Savitz was the center of a maelstrom of public outrage that culminated with his arrest on March 25, 1992 for the crimes of "involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual abuse of children, indecent assault and corrupting the morals of a minor."
When he was arrested, Savitz told authorities that he had been infected with full-blown AIDS for at least one and maybe two years. According to information released from the district attorney's office at the time, he admitted that he paid thousands of minor males for either engaging in anal and oral sex or for giving him dirty underwear and feces, which he kept in pizza boxes in his apartment.
After pleading guilty, Savitz touched off another controversy between those who felt he should remain in jail and those who felt that as a dying man he should be released.
Savitz died on March 27, 1993 and left behind an estate valued at $97,500. After a year of legal wrangling, Savitz's beneficiaries agreed in 1993 that it would cost far more than the estate was worth to fight those seeking restitution and agreed to the settlement proposal. However, that proposal was not tentatively approved by Judge DiNubile until two weeks ago.
"In my view, had this gone to trial, there would have been a very strong defense and none of the claims would have prevailed," Kaufman says.
Kaufman says that even with the settlement agreement, those seeking restitution will come away empty-handed.
"I do not believe that any of them had contact with Mr. Savitz, nor had any behavior that gave anyone reasonable fear of contracting AIDS," says Kaufman. "You do not get AIDS from collecting feces or smelling certain areas of the body. There is no credible evidence that Mr. Savitz engaged in anal intercourse with any of the individuals."
However, those close to the case say that the district attorney's office had "numerous" witnesses ready to testify that they had anal sex with Savitz. Because the case never went to trial, that testimony is not public information and the DA's office will not comment.
Kaufman acknowledged that Savitz did engage in oral sex with some of the John Does, whose names are being kept confidential. He says those engaging in oral sex are not considered at risk.
AIDS Information Network official Roe Scipio, however, says that anyone engaging in oral sex is at risk of contracting AIDS. She adds, however, that the receptive partner is at greater risk than the partner giving oral sex.
Attorney Wilson, representing the plaintiffs, says that, as far as he knows, none of the original class action plaintiffs has contracted AIDS. The issue, he says, is that because Savitz failed to disclose he had full-blown AIDS, he inflicted emotional damage on his sex partners.
In order to join the class action suit, those seeking compensation will have to appear before Settlement Master Aaron Finestone, who was appointed by the court, with Wilson's recommendation, to serve as a quasi-judicial buffer. Finestone says anyone interested in suing the Savitz estate will first have to prove to him that they either contracted AIDS, or fear they contracted AIDS from Savitz.
"I have to hear what they say and what the circumstances were," says Finestone. "A lot of it will come down to credibility."
Finestone says he cannot say exactly how much information claimants will have to provide in order to prove their case.
"No one has ever done anything like this before," he says. "This is groundbreaking. There is nothing in the law books about this."
Wilson says claimants have to "prove they can fit the pattern" involving those who engaged in sexual activity with Savitz. "There is a pattern that makes it pretty obvious."
Wilson adds that he does not know how many others will join the class action.
"My feeling is that if there are claims out there, they will be small claims," he says. No claimant can seek more than $5,000, according to court records.
Though there was $97,500 in the estate, claimants will only have access to $56,000.
Under that tentative agreement, $32,175 will go to attorney Wilson, $5,000 will go to Finestone, $3,456 was spent on legal notices and $407 went to court costs. There will be a final hearing on the matter before Judge DiNubile on Aug. 6.
Any left over money will be returned to the Savitz estate. If claims exceed the available funds, they will be prorated accordingly.
Nan Feyler, executive director of the AIDS Law Project, which provides legal counsel to those with AIDS, says suits like the one filed by Wilson can be counterproductive.
"This is part of a trend where people use the legal system to be compensated for transmission of HIV," says Feyler. "We cannot allow more people to just cast blame and not take personal responsibility. Both partners need to understand there is a risk. That is a public health message. Otherwise we will never be able to stop the spread of this disease."