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Johnson v. American Cyanamid Co.

Kansas Supreme Court
239 Kan. 279 (1986)


Poliomyelitis (polio) is a disease that killed or crippled tens of thousands of people. To combat this public-health menace, vaccines were developed. The first was the Salk vaccine; it required an injection and used dead polio viruses to create immunity in patients. The United States began an extensive vaccination campaign, and within a few years, the number of polio cases went from 58,000 to less than 5,000. The second vaccine developed was the Sabin vaccine. Unlike the Salk vaccine, the Sabin vaccine was oral and did not need boosters. The Sabin vaccine used a live, but weakened, virus. Because a live virus was used in the Sabin vaccine, the weakened virus in the patient could pass to others in close contact with the patient. This had the effect of sometimes immunizing others who had not taken the vaccine. Ultimately, the Sabin vaccine was the vaccine of choice in Western countries and was recommended by major medical organizations. The Sabin vaccine came with a warning stating that in an extremely low number of cases—30 out of 147 million administered doses—a person receiving the vaccine, or in close contact with a recipient, could be afflicted with a paralytic disease. Laurie Johnson (Laurie), an infant, received the Sabin oral dose from her doctor, Dr. Branson (defendant). A division of American Cyanamid Co. (defendant) properly made the vaccine administered to Laurie. Dr. Branson did not inform Laurie’s father, Emil Johnson (Emil) (plaintiff), about the warning. Emil contracted a virulent version of the vaccine virus from Laurie and became totally disabled. Emil sued, alleging various theories under products-liability law, including a failure to warn. The jury found 0 percent liability on the part of Dr. Branson and 100 percent liability on the part of American Cyanamid, awarding a verdict of $10 million. American Cyanamid appealed the portion of the verdict finding it 100 percent liable; no party appealed the portion of the verdict finding Dr. Branson 0 percent liable.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (McFarland, J.)

Dissent (Prager, J.)

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