Supreme Court weighing decision on vaccine lawsuits

posted on:
October 17, 2010

author:
JENNIFER WALKER-JOURNEY

Vaccine makers threaten to stop production if Supreme Court makes ‘wrong’ decision

Makers of vaccines designed to protect children from a host of potentially dangerous diseases are threatening to stop production if the United States Supreme Court decides to allow to be heard some 5,000 lawsuits alleging that vaccines caused autism. This term, the nation’s highest court will decide if the parents of a girl who became ill after being vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis can sue the manufacturer of the vaccine for designing a defective product.

Currently, manufacturers of vaccines are protected from product liability lawsuits under a no-fault system known as the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. In turn, the law provided care for those injured by vaccines. Under the act, injury claims go through an alternative legal system known as “vaccine court.” Individuals who have injuries listed among those officially recognized as being caused by a vaccine can be compensated. Those people, or their parents, can choose not to accept the award and to sue the vaccine’s manufacturer; however, if they choose to go that route they face steep legal challenges put in place to discourage separate lawsuits.

During the past 10 years, about 75 percent of the claims filed in vaccine court have been autism-related. However in the past two years, administrative judges in vaccine court have not allowed autism-related cases to qualify for compensation.

Hannah Bruesewitz does not have autism, but her neurological injuries are severe enough that her parents filed a claim in vaccine court. At 6 months of age, shortly after receiving a D.P.T. vaccine, the now-18-year-old began suffering from seizures and subsequently developmental delays. The vaccine Hannah received, which protects against diphtheria, pertussis (or whooping cough) and tetanus, is no longer sold.

But when the Bruesewitzes filed the claim in vaccine court, they learned that the severe injuries Hannah reportedly suffered had been removed from the list of those that qualified for compensation a month earlier. Hannah’s claim was rejected, so her parents filed a product liability lawsuit against the vaccine’s maker, Wyeth. The Bruesewitzes contend that a safer vaccine was available – one that had been developed by Eli Lilly in the 1960s and for which Wyeth had acquired the rights in the 1970s – yet the drug company had chosen not to market the drug.

In order for the Supreme Court to side with the Bruesewitzes, the family will have to prove that the vaccine injured their daughter. They will also have to convince a jury that although a safer alternative existed, Wyeth rendered the older vaccine unnecessarily dangerous because it chose instead to market the older vaccine despite having a newer version available. 

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