Supreme Court says vaccine lawsuits not allowed outside vaccine court

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In a decision providing comfort to anyone hoping to protect children from the ravages of preventable diseases, the United States Supreme Court voted six-to-two yesterday that the special Vaccine Injury Compensation Court must remain the only judicial means through which to settle vaccine lawsuits. In this case, the parents of a girl who developed a seizure disorder after receiving the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine brought a lawsuit against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

Denied compensation by the Vaccine Court, the parents attempted to resume their litigation in Pennsylvania’s state courts. Under the controlling federal law, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, however, only the Vaccine Court is permitted to compensate individuals (with funds accumulated from taxes on vaccines) who are found to be harmed by rare vaccine side-effects. The system was set up to protect vaccine manufacturers from out of control litigation, keeping them in business and thereby protecting our nation’s vaccine supply.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, the two dissenting justices, though, offered an opinion holding that the threat of lawsuits would be beneficial because it would prod vaccine makers to better monitor and design their products. “As if they’re not doing these things already,” comments ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom.

This ruling is nothing new, adds ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, but “it has finally been backed by the Supreme Court.”

Agreeing with the majority ruling of Justice Antonin Scalia that federal regulators are “in the best position to decide whether vaccines are safe and properly designed,” ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross believes that the ruling is excellent news for both the pediatricians who administer the vaccines and for parents everywhere. “Moreover, I seriously doubt that the previously-awarded $1.8 billion in settlements made by the Vaccine Court were based on truly causal effects of vaccines.”