- Under the PREP Act, companies like Pfizer and Moderna have total immunity from liability if something unintentionally goes wrong with their vaccines.
- A little-known government program provides benefits to people who can prove they suffered serious injury from a vaccine.
- That program rarely pays, covering just 29 claims over the last decade.
If you experience severe side effects after getting a Covid vaccine, lawyers tell CNBC there is basically no one to blame in a U.S. court of law.
“It is very rare for a blanket immunity law to be passed,” said Rogge Dunn, a Dallas labor and employment attorney. “Pharmaceutical companies typically aren’t offered much liability protection under the law.“
You also can’t sue the Food and Drug Administration for authorizing a vaccine for emergency use, nor can you hold your employer accountable if they mandate inoculation as a condition of employment.
Congress created a fund specifically to help cover lost wages and out-of-pocket medical expenses for people who have been irreparably harmed by a “covered countermeasure,” such as a vaccine. But it is difficult to use and rarely pays. Attorneys say it has compensated less than 6% of the claims filed in the last decade.
Immune to lawsuits
In February, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar invoked the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act. The 2005 law empowers the HHS secretary to provide legal protection to companies making or distributing critical medical supplies, such as vaccines and treatments, unless there’s “willful misconduct” by the company. The protection lasts until 2024.
HHS did not respond to CNBC’s request for an interview.
Dunn thinks a big reason for the unprecedented protection has to do with the expedited timeline.
“When the government said, ‘We want you to develop this four or five times faster than you normally do,’ most likely the manufacturers said to the government, ‘We want you, the government, to protect us from multimillion-dollar lawsuits,’” said Dunn.It is very rare for a blanket immunity law to be passed. … Pharmaceutical companies typically aren’t offered much liability protection under the law.Rogge DunnDallas labor and employment attorney
The quickest vaccine ever developed was for mumps. It took four years and was licensed in 1967. Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine was developed and cleared for emergency use in eight months — a fact that has fueled public mistrust of the coronavirus inoculation in the U.S.
Roughly 4 in 10 Americans say they would “definitely” or “probably” not get vaccinated, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. While this is lower than it was two months ago, it still points to a huge trust gap.
But drugmakers like Pfizer continue to reassure the public no shortcuts were taken. “This is a vaccine that was developed without cutting corners,” CEO Dr. Albert Bourla said in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday. “This is a vaccine that is getting approved by all authorities in the world. That should say something.”
The legal immunity granted to pharmaceutical companies doesn’t just guard them against lawsuits. Dunn said it helps lower the cost of the immunizations.
“The government doesn’t want people suing the companies making the Covid vaccine. Because then, the manufacturers would probably charge the government a higher price per person per dose,” Dunn explained.
Pfizer and Moderna did not return CNBC’s request for comment on their legal protections.
Is anyone liable?
Remember, vaccine manufacturers aren’t the ones approving their product for mass distribution. That is the job of the FDA.
Which begs the question, can you sue the U.S. government if you have an extraordinarily bad reaction to a vaccine?
Again, the answer is no.
“You can’t sue the FDA for approving or disapproving a drug,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “That’s part of its sovereign immunity.”
Sovereign immunity came from the king, explains Dunn, referring to British law before the American Revolution. “You couldn’t sue the king. So, America has sovereign immunity, and even each state has sovereign immunity.”
There are limited exceptions, but Dunn said he doesn’t think they provide a viable legal path to hold the federal government responsible for a Covid vaccine injury.
Bringing workers back to the office in a post-Covid world also carries with it a heightened fear of liability for employers. Lawyers across the country say their corporate clients are reaching out to them to ask whether they can require employees to get immunized.