Introduction to Public Health Law

Public health has become a broad and flexible concept that encompasses both the traditional definition of practices that benefit the health of the community and personal health services, such as hypertension treatment. Legally, however, the basis for traditional public health and personal health services are very different. For example, although the state has broad powers to order vaccination to prevent the spread of a dangerous communicable disease, the state has limited power to require competent adults to undergo medical treatment for personal illness such as hypertension.

The core of public health law is coercive action under state authority, the police power. In the best of circumstances, this authority may be needed only to encourage educational efforts. At other times, however, public health authorities must seize property, close businesses, destroy animals, or involuntarily treat or even lock away individuals. Such powers are rooted in earlier times, when the fear of pestilential disease was both powerful and well founded. As communicable diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and polio were brought under control in the 1960s, the public and even some public health experts began to believe that there was no longer a need for coercive public health measures.

The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, followed shortly by anthrax-laden letters sent to public figures, brought bioterrorism to the public’s consciousness, reviving ancient fears of pestilence. The sequella of Hurricane Katrina and growing fears of pandemic flu have raised questions about the capabilities of the public health infrastructure and the potential reach of public health laws in an emergency. These fears have forced a rethinking of public health law authority.

Tort Claims against Private Parties


Most medical care law is civil law.
Civil cases can be brought by the government or by private citizens.
Civil cases cannot be used to imprison.
Defendants have fewer rights in civil cases than in criminal cases.
Civil cases can result in huge damage awards.
Medical care practitioners must understand the civil law standards for medical care to avoid medical malpractice litigation.
The U.S. legal system uses three models for legal proceedings. In criminal law proceedings the government prosecutes individuals and corporations to punish them for previous actions. In administrative law proceedings the government seeks to compel individuals to comply with rules and regulations established by government agencies. Civil law proceedings, which are the focus for this section, are used to force compliance with either public laws or private contracts, and to establish the liability and amount of monetary compensation that must be paid to compensate for injuries. Civil law proceedings can be brought by private citizens, corporations, and the government. The key distinction between civil and criminal law is that civil law proceedings cannot result in imprisonment. Administrative law proceedings are either done in the agency or in special administrative law courts that follow different procedural rules.