The use of whole genome sequencing in biomedical research is expected to produce dramatic advances in human health. The increasing use of this powerful, data-rich new technology in research, however, will inevitably give rise to incidental findings (IFs), findings with individual health or reproductive significance that are beyond the aims of the particular research, and the related questions of whether and to what extent researchers have an ethical obligation to return IFs. Many have concluded that researchers have an ethical obligation to return some findings in some circumstances, but have provided vague or context-dependent approaches to determining which IFs must be returned and when. As a result, researchers have started returning IFs inconsistently, giving rise to concerns about legal liability in circumstances in which notification could have potentially prevented injury. While it is clear that ethical guidance should not be automatically codified as the law, and that crafting ethical obligations around legal duties can be inappropriate, the ethical debate should not proceed unaware of the potential legal ramifications of advancing and implementing an ethical obligation to return IFs.
This article is the first to assess the legal claims that could be brought for a researcher’s failure to return IFs. The potential for researchers to be held liable in tort is still uncertain and turns largely on a number of factors — including customary practice and guidance documents — that are still in flux. Unlike medical care, which has a well-defined duty into which evolving scientific knowledge about genetics and genomics can readily be incorporated, a researcher’s duty to return IFs is less well defined, making it difficult to determine at the outset whether and when legal liability will attach.
This article advocates for a clearer, ethically sound standard of requiring that researchers disclose in the informed consent document which approach to offering IFs will be taken. This approach enables participants to know at the outset which findings will be returned, allows researchers to ascertain when their failure to appropriately return incidental findings will give rise to liability, and enables courts to make determinations that will produce consistent legal guidance.