U.S. Capitol Building at Night

Is Preemption the Cure for Healthcare Federalism’s Restrictions on Medication Abortion?

This post is an adaptation of an article published in the Harvard Social Impact Review.

By Allison M. Whelan

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overruling almost fifty years of precedent established by Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed by Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The tragic consequences of Dobbs are many, and all require urgent attention.

Post-Dobbs, states have complete control over the regulation of abortion, including medication abortion. Now more than ever, a person’s access to abortion and other essential reproductive health care services depends on their state of residence and whether they have the means to travel to a state that protects access to abortion care. As a result, the question of whether states can restrict or ban pharmaceuticals approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now top of mind for lawyers, scholars, policymakers, and the public

The consequences that result from state bans and restrictions on medication abortion reverberate across the U.S. healthcare system, representing just one example of “healthcare federalism” — the division of power between the federal and state governments in the regulation of health care.

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Green parking meter reads "expired."

How the Unpredictable Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 Infection Pose a Challenge That Tort Law Cannot Meet

By Jennifer S. Bard

The longer the pandemic continues, the more obvious it is how effective the sweeping federal and state laws shielding medical providers from malpractice associated with COVID-19 have been. Few cases have been brought, and so far there is no record of successful judgements or settlements.

Even without these statutes, proving negligence in COVID-related cases would be exceptionally difficult, given the ever-evolving virus and treatment options. Still today it would be hard to prove that any good faith attempt at care was unreasonable and that there was a causal link to greater harm — both necessary to demonstrate negligence.

But, at some time in the relatively near future, this will change. The declared public health emergency will end, and with it the federal and remaining state blanket liability protections. A standard of care will develop and issues involving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19 will become the subject of tort litigation.

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Lawyer and client in courtroom.

Liability for COVID-19 Vaccine Harms: We Need to Do Better

By Dorit Reiss

COVID-19 vaccines are extremely safe, and serious harms are rare. But rare does not mean the risk is zero; thus, we need a way to determine which people have plausible claims of harm from the vaccines, and we must then compensate them quickly and generously. However, the regular torts system is not a good option for adjudicating these claims. Fortunately, we already have a better system — no-fault compensation — available to address the problem.

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Airplane taking off from the airport.

In-Flight COVID Transmission: Surveying the Liability Landscape

By Christopher Robertson

Do airlines have legal obligations to manage the risk of in-flight infections?

In the pre-COVID era, I answered this question affirmatively. In a 2016 paper, I reviewed the scientific literature showing that airline travel is a key vector for spreading infectious disease, both because airports and airplanes tend to mix people in such close quarters that they are likely to infect each other, and because it efficiently distributes infected people around the world to then infect more people.

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Bill of Health - Gavel on mask during pandemic, class action lawsuits during pandemic

Relying on the Unreliable? COVID-19 Claims Can’t Proceed Without a Proper Standard of Care

By Michelle Richards

In the United States, the imposition of tort liability for the transmission of an infectious disease goes back more than a century. It is no surprise, therefore, that similar claims have been filed for damages arising from the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

However, in order for these claims to be adjudicated fairly, they must be judged against a standard of care. A standard of care provides a benchmark for the level of caution a reasonable party would take in particular circumstances. If the standard of care is not met, liability may be imposed.

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Empty classroom.

Tort Liability for Faculty Who Fail to Tell the Class About COVID Cases in Their Midst

By Heidi Li Feldman

The more individuals must rely on their own judgment and effort to protect themselves from disease, the more they need information regarding the possibility of exposure to the cause of the disease.

This simple proposition, combined with changes in how governments and institutions are approaching COVID, means that university faculty should rethink their role in keeping their students informed about COVID cases among class members. To satisfy their legal obligations to protect students from harm, faculty must consider whether safeguarding their students from incurring COVID in their classrooms necessitates sharing such information. Fulfilling their legal duties to students may even require faculty to disregard administrative prohibitions against disseminating news of COVID cases in the class.

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A man holds a shield in his hand.

The Pathology (and Politics) of Liability Shields

By Nicolas Terry

Over one million Americans have died from COVID-19, while 20 percent of those who survive may develop post-COVID conditions. With weak safety net policies and high health care costs it would hardly be surprising if our fellow citizens tried to shift some of their COVID costs to arguably responsible defendants.

For example, lawsuits could have emerged against either businesses (or their employees) alleging negligent failure to mitigate (e.g., vaccinate, mask, or even implement hygiene theater policies), or against health care providers for failures in the professional standard of care (e.g., failure to amass/provide adequate numbers of personal protective equipment or ventilators).

However, the predicted litigation explosion has not materialized. In its stead (and without any apparent causal valence) we have experienced a proliferation of liability shield (aka limited immunity) laws.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Tort Liability is a Potentially Powerful Tool for Pandemic Response

By Timothy D. Lytton

When pandemic response efforts are hampered by inadequate enforcement resources and political polarization, tort liability could, potentially, be a powerful public health tool. However, starting in the initial stages of the pandemic, tort reform advocates quickly secured for businesses sweeping immunity from negligence, thereby sidelining the tort system. In this blog post, I will describe why this represents a lost opportunity.

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