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Supreme Court's Decision Could Alter Vaccine Injury Litigation Process

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Vaccine Injury Litigation Process
Vaccines are a powerful weapon in the ongoing battle to prevent the spread of numerous diseases. But vaccines don’t always work perfectly, and when they don’t, a patient can suffer serious injury. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a vaccine injury case. At issue was the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA). Under the law, families wishing to sue for vaccine injuries must first go through a special “vaccine court.” Now the Supreme Court must determine whether a family can sue without going through “vaccine court” on the grounds that there was a defect in the design of the vaccine. The Court’s decision could have big implications for vaccine manufacturers and those injured by vaccines.

Why Was a “Vaccine Court” Created?
In the early 1980’s a large number of vaccine injury cases with large settlements had pushed vaccine makers out of business. The NCVIA was enacted in an effort to strike a balance between two competing concerns: the need to provide protection and assistance for those injured from vaccines and the need to protect manufacturers from a barrage of adverse judgments. The “vaccine court” created by the Act had no jury, no-fault decisions and fewer requirements to prove injury than in civil court. The court, instead of relying on the wide range of ruling possible with juries, instead looks to the official Vaccine Injury Table of known side effects from medical literature to decide if the vaccine caused the injury.

Case Facts
The Supreme Court could change the litigation process dramatically if it decides that families bringing lawsuits can bypass the vaccine court and have their respective cases heard by a jury. In the present case, Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz filed a petition in 1995 seeking compensation from drug-maker Wyeth for allegedly selling an unsafe product that caused their healthy six-month-old daughter, Hannah, to suffer seizures that left her developmentally impaired. One month prior to the petition however, new regulations eliminated Hannah’s seizure disorder from the list of compensable injuries. As a result, the family’s petition was denied and it was left without recourse for Hannah’s injuries under the Vaccine Act. The Bruesewitz’s then brought a civil suit against Wyeth on the grounds that their vaccine was defective by design.

Potential Implications of the Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court looks to be split on the issue. Chief Justice Roberts was among those appearing to take the drug maker’s and government’s position that the claim is preempted. Justice Ginsburg took the opposite view. She questioned why if Congress wanted to bar civil liability for vaccine manufacturers it wrote a law that is open to conflicting interpretations. “If you wanted to make it clear that there is no design defect liability, then say that,” she said. “The language that they used is certainly, to say the least, confusing.”

Also, while the Court’s ruling is not related to autism, many lawyers say the biggest effect will be on hundreds of pending lawsuits that contend a link exists between childhood vaccines and autism. During the last decade, about 75 percent of claims filed in vaccine court have been autism-related.

No matter which way the Court comes out, it is clear that the stakes are high. Vaccine manufacturers are concerned that if the Supreme Court reverses the lower court’s decision, civil courts will be inundated with litigation that jeopardizes the nation’s supply of vaccines. “We very much wanted to make sure vaccine manufacturers are out of the line of lawsuits,” said Dr. O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Otherwise, we end up with nobody producing vaccines, and nobody making new vaccines.”

On the other hand, vaccine injury lawyers contend that if the Court doesn’t reverse the lower court’s decision, it will block crucial lawsuits that could reveal unknown risks associated with certain vaccines. Moreover, according to Jennifer Maglio, an attorney with a firm that specializes in vaccine injury cases, the exception provided by the Court’s decision would limit civil lawsuits to rare situations where the design of a vaccine was not in question.

Vaccine manufacturers and patients are not taking this case lightly. There are undeniably important implications for both sides and one very important decision to come. Stay tuned.