People who say the Zostavax vaccine injured them are filing lawsuits. Complaints say vaccine maker Merck failed to warn the vaccine could cause side effects.
The vaccine uses a live, weakened form of the chickenpox and shingles virus.
Lawsuits say Merck knew the live virus could cause a painful rash called shingles.
Norman Sukkar was one of the first people to file a lawsuit. He filed his claim in August 2017 in New Jersey. Less than five months after he received Zostavax, he woke up unable to walk. Doctors diagnosed him with acute transverse myelitis — a condition that causes spinal inflammation. He claims Zostavax caused his symptoms.
There are no class actions in the U.S., but Zostavax litigation is ongoing. So far, there have been no trial dates set. Plaintiffs filed the first group of lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and attorneys expect to file more cases.
Complaints Consolidated into Federal Action
On Aug. 2, 2018, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered 98 Zostavax lawsuits consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL). U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III in Pennsylvania will preside over the cases in MDL Number 2848. As of September 2018, there were 111 lawsuits in the MDL.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs commented that Judge Bartle has a lot of experience and has successfully handled other MDLs. Some elderly plaintiffs opposed the decision to consolidate because it may delay their claims. But, judges said consolidating claims would help the group of cases as a whole.
“We are sympathetic to their concerns about the potential for delay,” U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance, chair of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, wrote in a transfer order. “But centralization is appropriate if it furthers the expeditious resolution of the litigation taken as a whole, even if some parties might experience inconvenience or delay.”
Attorneys expect to file many more complaints in the federal MDL.
Hundreds of state cases are still pending in California and New Jersey. These are not included in the MDL. Superior Court Judge James F. Hyland is presiding over cases in New Jersey, and on Sept. 27, 2018 he held a case management conference to discuss the discovery timeline, issue a master complaint for all plaintiffs and schedule a day to discuss the science involved in the claims.
So far, there are no trials scheduled or publicized settlements.
Allegations: Vaccine Triggered Shingles, Other Disorders
Zostavax lawsuits claim the vaccine can cause shingles and other injuries. Merck sells Zostavax as a way to prevent the condition. But, some people say the vaccine causes shingles.
According to lawsuits, this type of shingles is more severe and difficult to treat. People claiming shingles from Zostavax must have received their shot after 2006 in order to file a claim.
“A risk of using a live virus vaccine is that it is not weakened enough or ‘under-attenuated.’ Under-attenuated live virus creates an increased risk of developing the disease the vaccine was to prevent.”
Other injuries alleged in lawsuits range from elevated blood pressure to serious autoimmune diseases.
For example, Jorja Bentley filed a Zostavax lawsuit in February 2017. Within 24 hours after receiving the vaccine, she developed a headache, dizziness and blurred vision, according to the lawsuit. She continues to suffer right eye injuries, high blood pressure, headaches and
“As a direct result of the vaccine, Plaintiff suffered, is suffering and/or will continue to suffer from mental and emotional distress due to resulting physical limitations and seriousness of her condition,” Bentley’s complaint stated.
- Autoimmune disorders, including Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, Meniere’s Disease
- Bell’s Palsy (facial paralysis)
- Cardiovascular event
- Congestive heart failure
- Hearing loss
- Herpetic Neuralgia (disorder in the nerves)
- Myelitis (spinal cord inflammation)
- Postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN (pain continuing after shingles blister subside)
- Serious neurological diseases or disorders, including brain inflammation (encephalitis)
- Vision problems, including blindness, eye infections, retinal damage, acute retinal necrosis
Zostavax Injuries Not Covered by VICP
Unlike many other vaccines, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) — a no-fault compensation program — does not cover Zostavax injuries. VICP was set up to provide vaccine manufacturers protection from liability for side effects from vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rather than sue vaccine manufacturers, people injured by vaccines such as the flu, chickenpox or HPV vaccine can submit a claim to the government for compensation. But VICP focuses on vaccines the government recommends for children. So, because the government recommends Zostavax for adults only, VICP does not compensate people hurt by this vaccine. This means people injured by this vaccine may file individual lawsuits against manufacturers.
Merck Accused of Making Defective Vaccine
Lawsuits accuse Merck of several types of wrongdoing. They say Zostavax “was inherently defective and unreasonably dangerous as designed,” and the manufacturer failed to warn the public. Plaintiffs argue that the shingles virus in the vaccine can reactivate once in the body.
Merck claimed the vaccine could prevent shingles and publicized industry-funded studies in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005. The study claimed the vaccine would not cause shingles.
Lawsuits also claim that Merck used this false safety data to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the vaccine. But after the paper published in NEJM, scientific and medical journals questioned the vaccine’s safety.
Other Merck Vaccine Lawsuits
Zostavax claims are not the first lawsuits against Merck for faulty vaccines. In 2010, former Merck scientists filed a class action suit against the pharma giant. The lawsuit accused Merck of faking tests for the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The lawsuit said Merck lied to the FDA about the effectiveness of the company’s vaccine.
“The ultimate victims here are the millions of children who every year are being injected with a mumps vaccine that is not providing them with an adequate level of protection against mumps.”
In 2012, a clinic and two other physicians sued Merck.
“Merck has known for a decade that its mumps vaccine is ‘far less effective’ than it tells the government,” the lawsuit claims. “… it falsified test results and sold millions of doses.”
Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.