The Truth About the Recent EU Vaccine Ruling
Many scientists and health experts have been up in arms over a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice relating to vaccines. As part of the ruling, the ECJ determined that EU law does not prohibit courts from considering circumstantial evidence in cases where the plaintiff is suing for damages that they say were caused by a vaccine. In essence, the ruling means that courts are recommended to consider this circumstantial evidence alongside any relevant scientific evidence.
The ruling immediately caused much consternation in the scientific community and led to headlines claiming that vaccines will now be able to be blamed for health problems despite the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that they are safe. However, while scientists may be outraged, when looking more closely at the ruling it immediately becomes apparent that it isn’t so controversial, and in fact, it is completely in line with legal tradition.
Basic Facts about the ECJ Vaccine Ruling
The European Court of Justice’s ruling was related to a case in France, where a man claimed that a hepatitis B vaccine caused him to develop multiple sclerosis. The man’s family claims that after receiving three injections of a hepatitis B vaccine between December 1998 and July 2000, the man was soon after diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was then declared unfit to work in 2001 and eventually passed away in 2011.
In 2006, the man’s family filed a suit against the maker of the vaccine, Sanofi-Pasteur, alleging that the vaccine directly contributed to his multiple sclerosis. The family claims that the fact that the MS symptoms began almost immediately following the final booster shot proves that the disease was caused by the vaccine.
Using this circumstantial evidence, a lower French court eventually ruled in the family’s favor in 2009. However, this ruling was overturned on appeal and the case finally ended up before the Court of Cassation—the French equivalent of the Supreme Court. This is what eventually led to the ECJ’s ruling after the Court of Cassation sought the ECJ’s advice as to whether circumstantial evidence could be applied based on current EU product-liability laws.
In passing its ruling, the ECJ essentially stated that EU laws did not prevent courts from considering circumstantial evidence that was “serious, specific and consistent.” However, the court also noted that all vaccine-liability cases must be considered on an individual basis and it was still up to the plaintiffs to provide proof that the vaccine directly caused their injuries or illnesses. As well, the courts are obliged to also consider all relevant scientific research.
What the Vaccine Ruling Really Means?
Scientists are worried that the ECJ vaccine ruling could open up vaccine manufacturers to more liability lawsuits and could force them to pay compensation should there be no direct scientific evidence ruling out a causal link between the vaccine and the specific illness the plaintiff claims the vaccine caused. However, the fact that the courts must consider all available scientific evidence means that it will generally be incredibly difficult for plaintiffs to counteract this evidence.
Vaccine manufacturers tend to have very credible scientific evidence to show that their products are safe—not to mention powerful legal teams that will ensure that this evidence is presented in a compelling way. This means that even when circumstantial evidence is included, the overwhelming scientific evidence will outweigh it and lead to the courts to rule in favor of the manufacturer.
In essence, the sheer amount of credible scientific evidence showing that the vaccine is safe will generally always win the case. In fact, most legal experts predict that the French Court of Cassation will still rule in favor of Sanofi-Pasteur as all available scientific research shows its hepatitis B vaccine is safe.
Despite the uproar that the ruling caused, it actually falls perfectly in line with legal traditions. Courts have an obligation to consider all available evidence, including circumstantial evidence, in order to arrive at a just decision. Still, cases built entirely on circumstantial evidence are extremely difficult to prove. For this reason, the ECJ ruling is unlikely to have much of an effect on vaccine-liability cases—meaning that the courts will generally still continue to rule in favor of the vaccine manufacturers in most cases.
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