January 25, 2020
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Kaci Hickox suing New Jersey officials over Ebola quarantine

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Kaci Hickox arrives at a speaking engagement at Partners for World Health in South Portland in this January 2015 file photo.

Kaci Hickox, the nurse who lived in Fort Kent and was quarantined in New Jersey after returning last year from treating patients suffering from the Ebola virus in Africa, on Thursday sued Gov. Chris Christie and other New Jersey public health officials in federal court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is working with two New York law firms to represent her, according to a news release issued by the ACLU of New Jersey.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said, “The ACLU of Maine supports the efforts of Kaci Hickox and our sister affiliate in New Jersey to fight back against draconian quarantine laws. As we said when Ms. Hickox faced the threat of involuntary quarantine in Maine, extreme measures like mandatory quarantines raise serious concerns about government overreach, not to mention frighten the public. Our response to public health situations should be guided by sound medical science, not by fear.”

Hickox’s private attorney, Steven Hyman of New York City, said Thursday that no legal action was planned against Gov. Paul LePage or any Maine officials, since a District Court judge refused to confine her to her Fort Kent home.

“One of the reasons we are filing now is we had all the documents from New Jersey that we needed,” Hickox said by phone Thursday evening from her home in Springfield, Oregon. “Honestly, in Maine the judge ruled in my favor, [and] this is about policy and how the quarantine [in New Jersey] was enacted and how that was done.”

The lawsuit claims that Hickox was held illegally and unconstitutionally against her will as part of a mandatory quarantine for anyone returning from certain West African countries who treated patients with Ebola. Her attorneys claim that Christie, then-Commissioner of Health Mary O’Dowd, and other New Jersey health officials imprisoned her illegally through the quarantine. The complaint also said that Christie made false statements about Hickox’s health and implied she had symptoms of Ebola.

“In-home quarantine still remains in place in many states,” Hickox said. “This [lawsuit] is not just about Chris Christie, though it is in part about him; but again, it is about setting a higher precedent so decisions are made in a more just and fair way.”

Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, declined Thursday to comment on the lawsuit because it is a pending legal matter.

In addition, the lawsuit alleged that the quarantine violated her constitutional rights to due process and illegally deprived her of her liberty.

Hickox is seeking a minimum of $250,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, according to the complaint, along with legal fees and costs.

The lawsuit also asked that New Jersey’s quarantine policy, which is still in effect, be declared unconstitutional.

“While this lawsuit has been filed to vindicate Kaci’s constitutional rights, an important corollary of this action is to change the existing New Jersey quarantine policy so that what happened to Kaci will not happen to another health care worker on their return,” Hyman said in the news release.

Norm Siegel, another attorney on Hickox’s legal team, said Thursday at a news conference that because Christie and officials in his administration are being sued as individuals, any judgment against them would come out of their own pockets, NJ.com reported. That would provide a strong deterrent to other officials who wanted to come up with health policies that were not rooted in medical science, the attorney said.

“Hickox landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on Oct. 24, 2014, en route home to Maine from West Africa,” the release said. “She was ordered to be held against her will despite showing no symptoms and engaging in no activities in Sierra Leone that would have put her at a high risk for contracting Ebola.

“She was first held at Newark Liberty International Airport, and soon after at University Hospital in Newark,” the release said. “Even after the negative blood test, New Jersey held Hickox for an additional two days, stretching her confinement to more than three days.

Hickox was held in a field tent in an unheated parking garage at University Hospital, the news release said. She had access to a portable toilet but not a shower, and she had to ask for extra blankets.

“I never had Ebola,” Hickox said in the release. “I never had symptoms of Ebola. I tested negative for Ebola the first night I stayed in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s private prison. My liberty, my interests and consequently my civil rights were ignored because some ambitious governors saw an opportunity to use an age-old political tactic: fear.”

She was released and returned to Maine, where LePage and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services attempted through a proposed court order to prevent Hickox from entering public places and tried unsuccessfully to confine her to her Fort Kent home for 21 days, according to a previously published report.

Maine Chief District Court Judge Charles LaVerdiere refused to grant the order. He found that DHHS had failed to prove that limiting Hickox’s movement was necessary to protect others from the dangers of the Ebola virus. In his order, LaVerdiere noted the irrational fears about Ebola and “misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country” about the virus.

A native of Texas, Hickox, 34, was living in Fort Kent a year ago with her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, who then was a nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

BDN writer Julia Bayly contributed to this report.


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