Charlie Sheen: What Legal and Career Issues He May Face After HIV Disclosure

Charlie Sheen HIV Today
Courtesy of NBC

Charlie Sheen’s announcement that he is HIV-positive puts back in the spotlight not just legal ramifications for the actor and his career, but the continued stigma faced by those who have the status.

On NBC’s “Today” on Tuesday, Sheen said that he had been blackmailed for “millions” to those who have threatened to expose his status, after being diagnosed four years ago. In an open letter posted on the “Today” website, Sheen wrote that “I always lead with condoms and honesty when it came to my condition.” He told Matt Lauer that he told his sexual partners ahead of time that he was HIV positive. “Yes I have…. No exceptions,” he said.

People with HIV live normal, healthy lives, and it’s the reaction to Sheen’s status that is most telling to longtime advocates of HIV issues.

“Just the fact that there were people who could try to blackmail him about his status speaks to the fact that we haven’t come as far as we need to in eliminating the stigma, and that the fear is still with us in a very palpable way,” said Allison Nichol, co-director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York.

She said Sheen’s disclosure may help better inform the American public not just on prevention, but on the nature of HIV transmission.

Sheen’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, clinical associate professor of medicine at UCLA, said that Sheen’s viral load remained “consistently undetectable” and told Lauer that “individuals who are optimally treated, who have undetected viral loads and who responsibly use protection…it’s incredibly rare to transmit the virus.”

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said that he had no personal knowledge of Sheen’s circumstances but “if he is in treatment and the virus is undetectable, there is a very, very small likelihood that he would pass the virus. The highest likelihood came before he knew he was HIV positive.”

Still, when Lauer asked Sheen whether he expected lawsuits, Sheen said, “I’m sure that’s next.” He told Lauer that he so far has faced “threats of revealing my condition,” not “for any contamination or transference.” Sheen’s attorney, Martin Singer, referred calls to Sheen’s publicist, Larry Solters, who declined comment.

Whether any of the plaintiffs would have a claim depends on the circumstances, led by the question of whether Sheen disclosed his HIV status before engaging in sexual activity. Sheen insists he did. According to the Associated Press, Bree Olson, one of his girlfriends what was living with Sheen in 2011, said on Howard Stern’s radio show on Tuesday, “He never said anything to me.” She said she learned only in the past few days, and has since tested negative.

Since 1998, it has been a felony in California to expose another to HIV by engaging in unprotected sexual activity, but that person has to know that he or she is infected, fails to disclose his or her status and acts with the “specific intent” to infect another person, said Ayako Miyashita, director of the L.A. HIV Law & Policy Project at UCLA. The issue of intent is not an easy thing to prove, and prosecutions have been relatively low in the state, according to legal experts.

There are ample cases, however, of civil lawsuits against individuals for exposing or transmitting a sexual partner to HIV or another type of sexually transmitted disease, in a negligence, battery  or fraud claim. In some cases, plaintiffs have sought claims of emotional distress over the fear that they have been infected after exposure.

Palm Springs attorney Shaun Murphy represented a woman who won a $6.7 million verdict against an ex-boyfriend she accused of intentionally and negligently infecting her with herpes. He said that primary issues in civil litigation are whether a person knows or has reason to know if he or she is infected, and then whether they disclosed that fact to a sexual partner.

Mere claims of emotional distress over the fear of being exposed to HIV are limited once a test shows comes out negative, he said. “What the dollar value of that is worth, I don’t know,” he said. “It may have a greater settlement value than a dollar value.”

As for Sheen’s career, he told “Today” that he doubts it will have an impact. State and federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, is pretty clear that discrimination includes a refusal to hire someone because of their HIV status, or even to ask about it in a job interview. When it comes to such things as cast insurance for a production, an insurer would look at HIV status “as they would look at any other ailment,” says Christie Mattull, managing director for insurance brokerage HUB Entertainment Industry Solutions.

An issue would arise if they are not being treated or taking their treatments, just as they would if someone who suffers from high blood pressure were not taking medication, she said.

As Huizenga said on “Today,” there has been a concern over Sheen if he “was overly depressed, if he was abusing substance, [that] he would forget these pills, and that’s been an incredible worry.”

Sheen’s successful career has been marked by a life of hard living, admitted hiring of prostitutes and substance abuse and, four years ago, a highly publicized feud with “Two and Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre that got him fired from the show. His last series, FX’s “Anger Management,” was canceled in 2014.

Weinstein said that “if you are worried about Charlie Sheen’s performance, I think HIV would be way down on that list. People are living long and healthy lives with HIV, and there are numerous people in the entertainment industry who are HIV positive.”

Sheen’s announcement could be a “wake up call,” he said. “I think people have been complacent about HIV because it is a treatable illness.”