Three years after the peak of public concern about COVID-19, multiple legal battles continue in North Carolina over government’s response to the pandemic.
Did the state’s top health official overstep her authority when shutting down an Alamance County race track? Did the governor discriminate against private bars when he shuttered businesses serving alcohol? Should the University of North Carolina System have refunded fees for on-campus services that were unavailable?
State courts are grappling with these issues.
Another case at the NC Court of Appeals deals with the COVID-19 vaccine. Specifically, a Guilford County mother wants the local school board to pay a legal penalty for the forced vaccination of her teenage son.
A legal brief filed on July 21 sets out the case for mother Emily Happel and son Tanner Smith.
In August 2021 Smith, then 14 years old, played high school football. “Tanner was informed by letter on Guilford County Schools letterhead that there was a cluster of COVID-19 cases among the football team, and because of this cluster he would need to report for a COVID-19 test to continue participating as a player on the Western Guilford High School football team,” according to Happel’s brief.
The letter directed Smith to a testing session at Northwest Guilford High School. Old North State Medical Society would conduct the test. Consent for testing was required.
Stepfather Brett Happel drove Smith to the testing site. Happel stayed in his car as Smith entered the school.
Neither the Happels nor Smith knew a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic was taking place at the same time and place as the testing. A flier promoting the vaccination clinic said, “Students age 12-17 must have their parent or guardian sign the consent form and bring the completed form to the vaccination site.”
While Smith waited for a test, clinic workers tried but failed to reach Emily Happel. They never contacted Brett Happel, who was waiting outside, according to the brief.
“After the workers failed to contact Mrs. Happel, one of the workers instructed the other worker to ‘give it to him anyway,’” Happel’s lawyer wrote. “Tanner then indicated to the workers that he did not want to receive the vaccine, and that he was just expecting to be tested for COVID-19. Despite failing to get parental consent or the consent of Tanner himself, the workers administered a COVID-19 dose to Tanner.”
Emily Happel filed suit. She raised state constitutional claims against both the Guilford school board and the medical society.
“Emily Happel had a liberty interest under NC Const. Art. I, §§ 1, 13, and 19 ‘to raise her son and to have control over his care and custody, and to do so in accordance with her conscience,’” according to the brief.
“At the time of the vaccine dose, the law of the land of North Carolina required parental consent: ‘Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, a health care provider shall obtain written consent from a parent or legal guardian prior to administering any vaccine that has been granted emergency use authorization and is not yet fully approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to an individual under 18 years of age.’”
The suit also cited Smith’s “liberty interest” to his own “bodily autonomy.” The 14-year-old also alleged a claim of battery.
Happel rejected the argument that Guilford schools and the medical society could avoid liability.
“The clinic workers were present at the vaccine clinic to carry on and further the business of the partnership that had been formed by defendants,” according to the brief. “They were there to administer vaccines. … When they administered the vaccine to Tanner, they were doing so in furtherance of their employer’s business and within the scope of their employment. That they did so without consent does not move them outside the scope of their employment.”
Nor should the school system distance itself from the clinic, Emily Happel argued.
“In this case, Tanner Smith was directed by letter from Guilford County Schools to report for COVID-19 testing to continue his participation in a school activity — playing football for his school,” according to the brief. “This is not a situation where the school facility was simply being used by a third party with little-to-no oversight by the school system. In fact, the vaccine clinic was held by ‘Old North State Medical Society in partnership with Guilford County Schools.’”
A trial judge dismissed Emily Happel’s lawsuit in March. It’s unclear whether the state’s second-highest court will prove more receptive to her arguments.
One fact is certain. Legal disputes stemming from NC governments’ response to COVID-19 are far from over.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.