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Zostavax Wrongful Death Complaint Alleges Vaccine Caused Respiratory Failure, Heart Failure, Other Complications

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Shortly after receiving a shingles vaccine, a Pennsylvania man developed respiratory failure, heart failure and other fatal complications, which were allegedly caused by side effects of Zostavax, according to a recently filed wrongful death lawsuit.

The complaint (PDF) was filed by Doris Jean Johnson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on March 6, presenting claims against Merck & Co. on behalf of herself and the estate of her deceased husband, Jack Wesley Johnson.

Merck introduced the Zostavax 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.

According to the Zostavax wrongful death lawsuit, shortly after Jack Wesley Johnson was inoculated in May 2016, he developed shortness of breath, pneumonia, respiratory failure, and acute systolic congestive heart failure, which resulted in the need for treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU), and ultimately caused him to die on March 27, 2017.

“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 infections, resulting from its use,” according to the complaint. “Merck continued to manufacture and market its product despite the knowledge, whether direct or ascertained with reasonable care, that Zostavax posed a serious risk of bodily harm to consumers. This is especially true given its tenuous efficacy.”

The lawsuit presents claims of negligence, design and manufacturing defect, failure to warn, breach of warranty, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and wrongful death, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, which are designed to punish Merck for recklessly disregarding the health and safety of consumers.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in similar Zostavax vaccine lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system, the case brought by Johnson will be consolidated with other claims, which are 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 part of the coordinated proceedings, it is expected that a small group of representative cases will be set for early trial dates to help the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that may be repeated throughout the litigation. However, if Merck fails to reach Zostavax settlements or another resolution for the claims in the future, each individual lawsuit may eventually be remanded back to the U.S. District courts where it was initially filed for a separate trial date.

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