Federal law trumps state law.

It’s a basic element of our system of government. It’s also a key obstacle in Emily Happel and Tanner Smith’s lawsuit against the Guilford County school board and Old North State Medical Society.

Happel and Smith have asked the state Supreme Court to take their case. They hope the high court will reach a different conclusion than the Court of Appeals about the role federal law plays in their legal dispute.

Smith was a 14-year-old high school football player in August 2021. Alerted by a letter from Guilford County Schools about a COVID-19 “cluster” involving his team, Smith faced a mandatory COVID test before he could return to practice.

The school system also informed Smith about free COVID testing at a different high school. Smith’s stepfather drove him to the testing site and waited outside as the teen entered the building.

Neither of them knew that the school was also hosting Old North State’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic. A clinic worker asked Smith to fill out a form while trying to contact his mother, Happel.

“After failing to make contact with Tanner’s mother, one of the workers instructed the other worker to ‘give it to him anyway.’ Tanner stated he did not want a vaccine and was only expecting a test, but one of the workers administered a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to him,” wrote Judge April Wood in the Appeals Court’s unanimous March 5 ruling.

Happel and Smith sued both the Guilford school board and the medical society. A trial judge dismissed the suit in March 2023.

At the Appeals Court, Wood labeled the clinic worker’s alleged conduct “egregious.” Yet she and her colleagues upheld the trial judge’s ruling. They cited a 2005 federal law called the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act.

A March 2020 COVID-19 declaration from the US Department of Health and Human Services secretary triggered PREP Act legal protection. That protection covered both defendants in Happel and Smith’s case.

“Plaintiffs argue the trial court erred in determining that the PREP Act … is applicable to this case and provides immunity to both Defendants,” Wood wrote. “Due to the sweeping breadth of the federal liability immunity provision in the PREP Act, we are constrained to disagree.”

“Wisely or not, the plain language of the PREP Act includes claims of battery and violations of state constitutional rights within the scope of its immunity, and it therefore shields Defendants from liability for Plaintiffs’ claims,” Wood added.

The PREP Act governed the case’s outcome, despite a 2021 state law requiring “parental consent before a vaccine granted emergency-use authorization may be administered to a minor.”

“Its intent is to prevent the egregious conduct alleged in the case before us, and to safeguard the constitutional rights at issue — Emily’s parental right to the care and control of her child, and Tanner’s right to individual liberty,” Wood wrote. “Notwithstanding, the statute remains explicitly subject to ‘any other provision of law to the contrary’ under the broad provision preempting state law in the PREP Act.”

Happel and Smith could win their case only if the vaccine had caused “death or serious physical injury,” Wood explained.

The mother and son hope the Appeals Court’s ruling doesn’t end the story. Their case deals with “the interplay between duty of the courts of North Carolina to remedy constitutional and other legal violations and a federal law that defendants purport forecloses that opportunity,” according to a state Supreme Court petition.

“The trial court and the Court of Appeals interpreted the PREP Act so broadly as to shield nearly every act, no matter how egregious, from any legal consequence,” the petition continued. The trial court and Appeals Court “rendered totally useless” the state law, “which prohibited the very acts committed by defendants.”

“It is now a law of aspiration, with no consequence for its blatant violation,” the mother and son argued.

Supreme Court justices face no obligation to take the case. Yet Happel and Smith argue that the dispute deserves the high court’s attention. “How the government chose to deal with the pandemic, especially concerning the administration of vaccines that had been granted emergency-use authorizations, was and is a hotly contested issue, one that is certainly of significant public interest,” according to the petition.

No one is likely to defend the clinic worker’s alleged actions in Guilford County in 2021. Happel and Smith make sympathetic plaintiffs. But it’s unclear how they could overcome arguments about the PREP Act’s protections.

It will be interesting to see if the state Supreme Court gives them a shot to make their case.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.