Anti-vaccine liability – should they pay for the harm they cause?

Recently, Professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss wrote an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle about anti-vaccine liability – should parents who refuse to vaccinate their children be financially liable for the harm they cause to others? Professor Reiss lays out a compelling case as to why it should happen.

Professor Reiss, a frequent contributor to this website, is a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA). She writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination–she really is a well-published expert in this area of vaccine policy. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

She has written other articles about anti-vaccine liability – here and here. This is an issue that many of us think about when anti-vaxxers put not only their own children but also many others, at risk of dangerous diseases. 

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Legal liability of anti-vaccine parents whose children infect others

Law & Order: SVU, an American crime drama television series set in New York City did a story about the legal liability of anti-vaccine parents. It usually bases episodes on real news stories but putting some twist on them. And for fans of the show, it is addicting.

In the spring of 2009, an episode entitled Selfish aired. The plot was about an immature, irresponsible young mother who was assumed to have killed her child. In a major plot twist (and actually one that caught me by surprise), the coroner determines that the child died from measles, in what turned out to be an outbreak of the disease in fictional New York City.  

The Assistant District Attorney then decides to prosecute the mother of the child who started the measles outbreak because she had refused to immunize her child for all of the reasons popularized by the vaccine deniers. Unfortunately, the producers of the show didn’t give us the full satisfaction of having that mother spend time in prison (and if one looked at the episode with even amateur legal eyes, it probably wasn’t going to happen). 

But the episode is popular with many of us on the pro-science side, and I have tweeted when the episode is on a rerun somewhere. So let’s look into the legal liability for an anti-vaccine parent whose child infects others.

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