Zostavax Shingles Vaccine Resulted in Varicella Encephalitis, Bell’s Palsy, Wrongful Death: Lawsuit

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Merck faces a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a South Carolina man, which alleges that side effects of the Zostavax vaccine resulted in a number of health complications, including the development of tremors, facial paralysis and varicella encephalitis, all of which resulted in fatal injuries. 

Mary Kathryn Breningmeyer Erwin filed the complaint (PDF) last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, joining several hundred similar cases are pending over the shingles vaccine.

Zostavax was introduced in May 2006, as a single dose vaccine for prevention of shingles among individuals over the age of 50. It is a more potent version of the Merck chickenpox vaccine, Varivax, which contains the live varicella zoster virus. However, an alarming number of problems have been reported, where users experienced longer and more painful shingles outbreaks and other infections, which were allegedly caused by use of an “under-attenuated” version of the virus that was not sufficiently weakened to avoid reactivating the dormant virus in some users.

Erwin’s husband, Paul, died in April 2017, after he was inoculated against shingles with the Zostavax vaccine. Following the injection, he developed tremors, Bell’s palsy and varicella encephalitis, which involves a reactivation of the live virus contained in Zostavax.

“Merck failed to exercise due care in the labeling of Zostavax and failed to issue to consumers and/or their healthcare providers adequate warnings as to the risk of serious bodily injury, including viral infection, resulting from its use,” the lawsuit states. “Merck knew, or should have known, that consumers, such as the Plaintiffs, would foreseeably suffer injury as a result of Merck’s failure to exercise ordinary care.”

Erwin presents claims of negligence, design defect, failure to warn, breach of warranty, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, loss of consortium and wrongful death. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in Zostavax vaccine lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system, the litigation has been centralized before U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings as part of a federal MDL, or multi-district litigation.

As vaccine lawyers continue to investigate and file additional claims on behalf of people who have experienced problems from Zostavax, the size of the litigation is expected to continue to grow over the coming months and years.

While all cases filed throughout the federal court system are currently centralized before Judge Bartle, if Merck fails to reach Zostavax settlements or another resolution for the claims following bellwether trials, each individual lawsuit may eventually be remanded back to different U.S. District courts nationwide for separate trial dates in the future.

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