Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is a type of blindness caused by mtDNA mutations. Three LHON mtDNA mutations at nucleotide positions 3460, 11778, and 14484 are specific for LHON and account for 90% of worldwide cases and are thus designated as "primary" LHON mutations. Fifteen other "secondary" LHON mtDNA mutations have been identified, but their pathogenicity is unclear. mtDNA haplotype and phylogenetic analysis of the primary LHON mutations in North American Caucasian patients and controls has shown that, unlike the 3460 and 11778 mutations, which are distributed throughout the European-derived (Caucasian) mtDNA phylogeny, patients containing the 14484 mutation tended to be associated with European mtDNA haplotype J. To investigate this apparent clustering, we performed chi2-based statistical analyses to compare the distribution of LHON patients on the Caucasian phylogenetic tree. Our results indicate that, unlike the 3460 and 11778 mutations, the 14484 mutation was not distributed on the phylogeny in proportion to the frequencies of the major Caucasian mtDNA haplogroups found in North America. The 14484 mutation was next shown to occur on the haplogroup J background more frequently that expected, consistent with the observation that approximately 75% of worldwide 14484-positive LHON patients occur in association with haplogroup J. The 11778 mutation also exhibited a moderate clustering on haplogroup J. These observations were supported by statistical analysis using all available mutation frequencies reported in the literature. This paper thus illustrates the potential importance of genetic background in certain mtDNA-based diseases, speculates on a pathogenic role for a subset of LHON secondary mutations and their interaction with primary mutations, and provides support for a polygenic model for LHON expression in some cases.