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Law, Liability, and Public Health Emergencies


According to many experts, a public health emergency arising from an influenza pandemic, bioterrorism attack, or natural disaster is likely to develop in the next few years. Meeting the public health and medical response needs created by such an emergency will likely involve volunteers, health care professionals, public and private hospitals and clinics, vaccine manufacturers, governmental authorities, and many others. Conducting response activities in emergency circumstances may give rise to numerous issues of liability, and medical professionals and other potential responders have expressed concern about liability exposure. Providers may face inadequate resources, an insufficient number of qualified personnel, overwhelming demand for services, and other barriers to providing optimal treatment, which could lead to injury or even death in some cases. This article describes the different theories of liability that may be used by plaintiffs and the sources of immunity that are available to public health emergency responders in the public sector, private sector, and as volunteers. It synthesizes the existing immunity landscape and analyzes its gaps. Finally, the authors suggest consideration of the option of a comprehensive immunity provision that addresses liability protection for all health care providers during public health emergencies and that, consequently, assists in improving community emergency response efforts. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2009;3:117–125)

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Sharona Hoffman, JD, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 11075 East Blvd, Cleveland, OH 44106(e-mail:
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Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness
  • ISSN: 1935-7893
  • EISSN: 1938-744X
  • URL: /core/journals/disaster-medicine-and-public-health-preparedness
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