More on the Debate over Vaccines and Liability

Bill of Health Contributor Art Caplan has a new opinion piece online at MedScape: “YOUR Fault if Your Unvaccinated Child Makes Someone Sick.” (Note: Registration to access MedScape is free.)

Are you doing enough to make sure that your patients and their kids are getting vaccinated? Sometimes we leave this for the pediatrician to worry about, but I think that every doctor who sees patients should make it a part of taking the history to ask if they are up to date on vaccinations. Have they gotten their boosters? What are they doing with their kids?

All over the United States, we are tragically seeing the recurrence of diseases that weren’t here 20 years ago. Whooping cough, mumps, and measles are all on the rebound because people don’t vaccinate their kids or they don’t get the booster shots that they need to grant immunity to themselves. 

And Dorit Reiss has a new article up on SSRN: “Compensating the Victims of Failure to Vaccinate: What are the Options?

This article asks whether parents who choose not to vaccinate their child should be liable if that child, at higher risk of infectious disease than vaccinated children, transmits a vaccine-preventable diseases to another. The article argues that a tort remedy in this situation is both desirable and appropriate. It is desirable to assure compensation to the injured child and the family, who should not have to face the insult of financial ruin on top of the injury from the disease. It is also appropriate to require that a family that chooses not to vaccinate a child fully internalize the costs of that decision, and not pass them on to others.

The article suggests that there should be a duty to act in this situation, since the non-vaccinating parents do create a risk. Even if this is seen as a classic situation of nonfeasance there are policy reasons to create an exception to the usual rule that there is no duty to act. As an alternative, it suggests adopting a statutory duty to act.

It suggests that legal exemptions from school immunization requirements are not a barrier to liability, since the considerations behind those exemptions are separate from tort liability. It addresses the problem of demonstrating causation, and suggests in which types of cases showing causation would be possible, and when proximate cause can be extended from an index case to subsequent cases. Finally, it addresses some of the potential counter arguments.

Check them out and join the discussion.

    One thought on “More on the Debate over Vaccines and Liability

    1. Please note: We do not generally moderate comments on Bill of Health posts. We do, however, have a spam filter, which sometimes catches legitimate comments. If your comment does not appear when you submit it, feel free to email us at petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu to let us know and we will retrieve the comment for you.