by Guillermo Contreras
Metro / South Texas

A Bexar County jury awarded a woman $551,600 Wednesday after finding she likely contracted hepatitis C from a San Antonio-area business that performs permanent cosmetic applications.

While medical studies have linked the often-fatal virus to tattoo parlors and related permanent cosmetic businesses, the lawsuit is believed to be the first time nationally that the issue has gone to trial, allowing a jury to make the link, state and national health experts said.

“We have no confirmed records of hepatitis C being transmitted at a licensed studio, so we’re certainly interested in this case,” said John Gower, director of programs for drugs and cosmetics at the Texas Department of Health in Austin.

The jury found John Shumate, owner of Permanent Cosmetics by John Shumate at 6111 Broadway, and his daughter Julie negligent for infecting Deborah Anderson, who received a series of permanent coloring touch-ups to her lips at the studio, mostly in 1999.

Anderson, 52, learned she had hepatitis C in February 2000 when a blood bank rejected her donation, according to her lawyers.

During an earlier donation, she did not have the virus.

She complained to the state Department of Health, and an inspection of the business found several violations, including dirty floors in the tattooing area, employees not washing their hands between applications, and incorrect or insufficient labeling of sterilized equipment.

“The jury has sent out a message to the public about the seriousness of the health issues involved with tattooing,” said LoAn Vo, one of Anderson’s lawyers.

Neither Shumate nor his attorney, John Wennermark, returned calls seeking comment.

Roger Sanchez, an epidemiologist with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said getting hepatitis C from a business is rare.

He added that “it’s difficult to prove, but it’s not impossible.”

The case bolsters a study done 10 years ago by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas that found most hepatitis C cases in Texas – 30 percent – were transmitted through commercial tattooing.

Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state uses a different standard in determining infections. A person may not know for years after his initial infection that he is carrying hepatitis C, and he can’t isolate the tattooing as the likely cause, he said.

“This was the perfect case because you have a lady with no other risk factors,” said Haley, who testified for the plaintiff and was the author of the study. “She has a very low-risk lifestyle … so she has no (other) reason to get hepatitis C.”

At trial, Anderson’s lawyers introduced evidence of violations at Shumate’s studio. A state investigator noticed topical drugs to numb pain that required a prescription or licensed medical practitioner to apply them. Shumate does not have a medical license, according to the state report.

The inspector also observed three tattoo artists providing services for three hours, but none washed his or her hands between tattoo applications on separate clients, the investigator’s report said.

The report also noted Shumate complained about the inspection process.

“Mr. Shumate stated that this is just another way that big government is trying to put him out of business,” the report said. “He stated that there are some things that the government has no business regulating.”