U.S. SC rules for vaccine makers

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 23, 2011, 12:13pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling on Tuesday, has protected vaccine makers from lawsuits by parents whose children have allegedly suffered side effects from the medications.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored the Court's opinion, pointed to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986.

The act, he wrote, "created a no-fault compensation program to stabilize a vaccine market adversely affected by an increase in vaccine-related tort litigation and to facilitate compensation to claimants who found pursuing legitimate vaccine-inflicted injuries too costly and difficult."

The act provides that a party alleging a vaccine-related injury may file a petition for compensation in the Court of Federal Claims, naming the Health and Human Services Secretary as the respondent; that the court must resolve the case by a specified deadline; and that the claimant can then decide whether to accept the court's judgment or reject it and seek tort relief from the vaccine manufacturer.

Awards are then paid out of a fund created by an excise tax on each vaccine dose.

Most importantly, Scalia wrote, the act eliminates manufacturer liability for a vaccine's "unavoidable, adverse side effects."

The Court, in its ruling, upheld the federal law. But it was a blow to a set of Pennsylvania parents who contended their daughter, Hannah, suffered seizures and delayed development after receiving a diptheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine made by Wyeth, now part of Pfizer Inc.

Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz, whose daughter is now a teenager, filed a vaccine injury petition in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 1995; however, their claim was denied. In 2005, they sued the drug maker in a state court, arguing the "defective design" of the vaccine led to Hannah's disorders.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Wyeth summary judgment on the strict liability and negligence design-defect claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the ruling.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented, filed a separate opinion. In it, they argued the federal law was not meant to shield drug makers from such lawsuits.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the decision.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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