Wyoming Supreme Court Says Inmates Can’t Sue Over Getting Wrong COVID Vaccine

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against three prison inmates who sued over being given a brand of COVID-19 vaccine they didn’t consent to get.

Clair McFarland

October 27, 20234 min read

Wyoming Supreme Court building, October 27, 2023
Wyoming Supreme Court building, October 27, 2023 (Cowboy State Daily staff)

The Wyoming Supreme Court has rejected the claims of three federal inmates that a lower court was unfair to them when they sued the state over a mix-up about which brand of COVID-19 vaccine they received in prison.  

Alleging a health official at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington gave them the wrong brand of COVID-19 vaccine without their consent, Chester L. Bird, Ryan A. Brown and Richard B. Dague sued Wyoming in Goshen County District Court in 2021. They simultaneously sued the health official and the prison warden in the federal U.S. District Court for Wyoming.  

While the consent form they signed referenced the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the health worker actually injected them with the Janssen brand COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021, according to court documents. The inmates claim that while they consented to get vaccinated, they didn’t consent to that specific brand of vaccine. 

Prison officials countered, saying they informed the inmates about the Janssen vaccine via the prison's television channel. 

Ongoing ‘Emotional Distress’

The inmates said many incarcerated people simply don't watch the TV channel because it is "routinely off the air, the material is outdated and/or the material is illegible due to poor formatting or other issues."

The men said in their federal lawsuit amended complaint that they suffered injury from their vaccinations, but the document does not go into detail about the alleged injuries. Days after the injections, Wyoming paused the rollout of the Janssen vaccines in response to reports of severe side effects, including blood clots and at least one death.  

“The Plaintiffs absolutely would have refused the Janssen Vaccine had they been made aware that it was the vaccine being offered them,” reads the men’s amended complaint in federal court, adding that they’ll continue to suffer “consternation and emotional distress” over unknowns associated with the vaccine.  

Neither lawsuit broke in the inmates’ favor. The Goshen County District Court ruled against them. The federal U.S. District Court for Wyoming dismissed their complaint as “devoid of facts” to support a finding that the warden and health worker deliberately violated their rights.

When the inmates appealed to a higher federal court, that court also rejected their argument.  

Immunity For The State 

The men did not allege that any of them died or were seriously injured.  

This was the fulcrum in the Wyoming Supreme Court’s Thursday order rejecting their appeal, which had argued that the Goshen County District Court erred by not letting them gather more discovery (lawsuit evidence) about the state’s alleged conduct before judging the case in the state’s favor.   

The high court’s order against the men cites a federal law that gives government officials immunity for injuries caused by authorized vaccines during a public health emergency, except in cases of severe injury or death.  

That law is the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act). During declared public health emergencies, the act protects government entities from lawsuits under both state and federal law stemming from injuries caused by vaccines authorized for emergency use.  

“Conduct that is negligent or reckless in administering a COVID-19 vaccine is immune from suit and liability for both federal and state law claims,” says the high court’s ruling. “The State is therefore immune from suit and liability, and the district court did not err.”  

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter