Can parents be liable for falsifying vaccination records?

Todd W. of Harpocrates Speaks asked me and Popehat (my favorite law-related blog) to comment on a heartwarming story that he posted on his blog. Popehat said that it wasn’t his area of law, and that he’d have to research it. Unlike Popehat, I have no qualms about recklessly stabbing in the dark to come up with comments on something in which I have little expertise and on which I have done little research. To be fair to myself, though, I actually have some expertise in child abuse and neglect, and I currently work in a position where I deal with a very wide variety of legal topics.

So the story goes like this: A couple of months ago, at a day care far, far away (Todd does not say where), four children came down with chicken pox. Three of the children were above the age for vaccination, and one 6-month-old child, too young to be vaccinated, also came down with the disease. Two women on the staff at the daycare were pregnant, putting them and their unborn children at risk, especially since one of them did not know if she had been vaccinated against the disease.

Apparently, the day care required that all children be immunized, and the parents of the infected children had reported that the children were immunized, even providing documentation of the vaccinations. Todd says that the parents “faked” the vaccination records of their children to get them into the daycare, and that the daycare was not too careful about verifying the records.

A commenter then asked, “Could there be some kind of legal action taken against the parents who faked the immunization record?” We’ll take a look at criminal and civil liability here. I’m going to limit my answer to the question that was asked, which focuses on the faked immunization record. For an examination of the possible liability that parents face for failing to immunize their child if the child then gets sick and infects someone else, see Jann Bellamy’s post on Science-Based Medicine a year and a half ago.

Because laws differ from state to state in the U.S., I’m going to have to discuss this very generally, especially since Todd wouldn’t say where the day care was. Lawyers reading this will probably be saying to themselves, or shouting out loud, “No! Wrong! That’s not the whole story!” I know; I’m trying to simplify things here. As always, don’t take what I’m saying as legal advice.  If you face a similar situation yourself, go see a lawyer.

Civil Claims

The tort, or private/civil wrong, that the parents may be liable for is intentional misrepresentation or fraud. To win a case for intentional misrepresentation or fraud, the plaintiff basically has to prove that the defendant knowingly made a false statement for the purpose of getting the listener/reader of the statement to rely on it, that the listener/reader reasonably relied on the statement, and that the listener/reader suffered some harm/injury to person or property as a result.

I think that here the day care, but not other parents or day care staff, may have a shot at winning on a fraud claim against the non-vaccinating parents. The facts that we have say that the parents knowingly made false statements–the false documents showing vaccination–to the day care that their children were vaccinated. They did it in order to have the day care accept their children into the program. If the fake documents were realistic enough, then the day care probably reasonably relied on the statements. If the day care suffers any loss as a result, they should be able to recover those damages from the parents. To tell the truth, I can’t really imagine that the day care would suffer much loss from this. Perhaps they would have to hire subs for sick workers, or will be liable to the parents of any other kids who contracted the infection, but I doubt it (for reasons that I don’t have time to get into here). The day care would not be liable in any lawsuit by its workers; workers’ compensation laws would cover any illnesses or injuries by the workers and the day care would be immune from suit by its employees.

I don’t think that the parents would have any liability to other parents for the false statements, because the parents didn’t make any statements to the other parents. They made the statements only to the day care.

I can’t think of any other basis for a lawsuit by anyone for the parents’ act of falsifying the vaccination documents. If anybody has any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Criminal liability

Again, it depends greatly on what state we’re in whether the parents might have committed some crime here. State laws are surprisingly different when it comes to crimes. Just for fun, I randomly picked a few states and took a quick gander (I mean a casual look, not a fast male goose; I would never steal a goose) at their criminal laws to see if there was anything I could find.

The type of crime I was looking for was fraud or criminal misrepresentation of some sort, perhaps including forgery offenses. I’m sure that the vaccination documents are not sworn, so I didn’t bother to check for perjury offenses.

New York, in section175.05 of its penal law, defines the crime of “falsifying business records in the second degree” to include when a person, “with intent to defraud . . . [m]akes or causes a false entry in the business records of an enterprise.” From the definitions earlier in the penal law, I think the day care would be an “enterprise,” and I think the parents might be liable for “causing” the false entry in the day care’s records.

I couldn’t quickly find any applicable fraud crime in Illinois.  All of the Illinois fraud crimes that I could find involve financial fraud.

Colorado Revised Statues section 18-5-104 says,”A person commits second degree forgery if, with intent to defraud, such person falsely makes, completes, alters, or utters a written instrument” that is not specifically covered by statutes defining other kids of fraud.

The New York and Colorado statutes could be used to prosecute parents who falsify vaccination records.  In other states, like Illinois, there may be no law that specifically prohibits falsifying that kind of document.

I’d be surprised if any prosecuting attorney would take this kind of case.  I could not find any news article of a parent being charged for fraud involving a vaccination record.

Conclusion

As much as I hate to say it, it appears unlikely that the parents who falsified the vaccination records will face any real legal consequences from their fraud.  I can only hope that some brave prosecutor realizes the risk to public health that these parents created and charges the parents accordingly–if they live in a state that has laws that prohibit this kind of fraud in the first place.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Can parents be liable for falsifying vaccination records?

  1. Thanks for offering some ideas on the types of legal issues that could potentially come into play. I kind of figured that, legally, there wasn’t really all that much that could occur. One thing you mentioned that got me thinking, if the day care failed their own due diligence in ensuring that the immunization records were accurate and, as a result, lose their license, would that constitute actionable harm in connection with the parents’ allegedly falsifying the records (i.e., damages that they could try to recover)?

  2. Lisa R

    Fascinating, though infuriating! Thanks for walking through the analysis.

  3. Vaccinated children still can catch the chicken pox! They aren’t 100% effective. Just because a child catches the pox doesn’t mean they lied about their records.

  4. Oana

    I don’t know about US law, but Canadian law recognizes claims brought by third parties for misrepresentations made, where reliance on those misrepresentations by the third parties is deemed reasonable and reasonably foreseeable. Arguably, reliance by other parents on accurate statements about one’s kids’ vaccination status is foreseeable.

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