On 21 June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case that examined whether Sanofi-Pasteur’s hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis (MS) in a patient. Although the ruling might, on the surface, be considered bad for vaccines, we need to look more carefully at that European court vaccine ruling.
On June 21, 2017 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided a product liability case (N.W. et al v. Sanofi Pasteur MSD SNC, C-621/15) described by news articles as allowing plaintiffs to be compensated for alleged vaccine harms, even when there is no scientific evidence of a causal connection (in the most extreme versions, “with no proof”). This description is incorrect. More nuanced analyses were provided by Orac and Steve Novella, but I think they, too, did not exactly capture what the decision does. This post explains the European court vaccine decision.
Three take-home points are important:
If there is no scientific consensus as to whether a vaccine causes a particular kind of injury, member state courts can allow plaintiffs to use circumstantial evidence to prove a vaccine injured them. Defendants, of course, can use scientific evidence to counter the plaintiff’s circumstantial evidence. This decision does not mean that science doesn’t matter in the courts or that anti vaccine activists can win even when the science is against them.
Member courts cannot treat circumstantial evidence as creating a presumption of causation. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving the vaccine cause the injury, and each case must be examined on its facts. For example, a temporal connection alone does not automatically mean there’s causation.
In a referral like this, the ECJ does not reexamine the facts. It is answering the specific questions of law, and basing its decision on the description of the facts sent up from below. The ECJ was acting on a mistaken premise that the science, in this case, was unclear. That premise came from the lower courts, and the ECJ did not err in following it: it did not reexamine the facts, and did not decide the case in front of it, it only addressed a specific legal question. In the lower courts that now will be expected to rule according to the ECJ’s decision, Sanofi Pasteur – the defendant – should provide the scientific evidence, and we can hope the court, as did the Court of Appeals who ruled on the case last, will follow it. It’s unclear how the case will end.
This is a complex decision. To explain it, I will start with some background on product liability law and European Union law with respect to the European court vaccine decision. Then I will address this case, and then the ruling itself. If you are short of time you can skip the background and go directly to the case, but I think those who want to really understand this will benefit from it. Continue reading “European court vaccine decision – a legal analysis”