Supreme Court Grants Wyoming Immunity for Injecting Prison Inmates with Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine
The Wyoming Supreme Court granted the State of Wyoming immunity after a group of inmates filed a lawsuit against the State, claiming a health care provider at the prison acted negligently when she injected them with the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine because the consent forms they signed only mentioned Moderna and Pfizer.
The court claims the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act shields the State from suit and liability.
Chester L. Bird, Ryan A. Brown, and Richard B. Dague were inmates at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Goshen County when the United States of America declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19's rapid spreading. Soonafter, the facility began vaccinating high-risk inmates.
On Jan. 13, 2021, Bird requested information about the vaccines. Healthcare providers at the prison said:
"We are currently working with [c]ounty health departments to receive vaccines. These are being released as they work down the priority lists. Once vaccines have been received and we know which one will be available we will provide information sheets."
Following, staff provided information sheets for the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. Court records show these were posted in the prisoner housing units.
Two months later, the FDA issued authorization for the emergency use of the Janssen vaccine. Records indicate the warden did not know which vaccines would be administered.
On March 10, 2021, the prison received a shipment of vaccines for the general population. The consent form specified that inmates and staff were "being offered the COVID-19 vaccine granted by the FDA for emergency use. The consent form did not specify which vaccine was being offered. It did, however, reference the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines:
The above history is true and complete to the best of my knowledge.
I have received the COVID-19 Vaccine Patient Information Fact Sheet and have been given the opportunity to ask questions.
I understand this vaccine is given [in] 2 doses, 21 days apart for Pfizer or 28 days apart for Moderna.
All three appellants initialed the forms.
Court records allege that the day before they got their shot, prison staff published a notice on the inmate TV specifying which COVID-19 vaccine was being offered. However, the inmates said they don't pay attention to the facility television because it's routinely off the air, outdated, and/or illegible due to formatting and other issues.
They didn't realize they had been given the Janssen vaccine until three days after it was administered. Appellants filed a District Court complaint against the health services administrator and the warden at the prison. This complaint was dismissed. They also filed a complaint against the State of Wyoming for negligence. This, too, was dismissed.
SIDENOTE: After Janssen was authorized for emergency use in 2021, it became linked to an increased risk of thrombosis; the FDA and the CDC recommended a temporary pause on the use of the vaccine. It was then only used in special cases. In 2023, Janssen Biotech sent a letter to the FDA requesting that the emergency use authorization forJanssen be withdrawn. To protect the public, the FDA revoked the authorization and it is no longer available in the United States.
Inmates claimed they "suffered great bodily injury" when injected with the Janssen vaccine and will continue to "suffer consternation and emotional stress" for being injected without their informed consent due to the uncertainty of the safety of the vaccine.
The appellants filed for limited discovery -- a pretrial maneuver to obtain evidence from the other party -- but the court granted the State immunity from suit and liability. The appellants timely appealed, but the Supreme Court ultimately maintained the State's immunity.
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