March 1, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that not only disappointed the plaintiffs but also discouraged potential plaintiffs from Oregon and every other state. The case involved a product liabilityclaim against a pharmaceutical company, raising questions about the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and the no-fault vaccine court created by the Act.

The plaintiffs are the parents of a girl, now 19, who received the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine in April 1992. The vaccine is administered in five doses, and when she received the third dose, the baby suffered a series of debilitating seizures. According to court documents, she still suffers from residual seizure disorder.

The family unsuccessfully pursued their claim with the vaccine court. They then filed the present action in federal court, but both the district court and the court of appeals found for the drug company. The outcome was not unusual — it seems state and federal appeals courts almost always take the manufacturer’s side.

The Vaccine Act created the vaccine court as part of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The court is staffed by special masters who hear claims of vaccine-related injuries, regardless of the manufacturer. The special master then decides if the family should be compensated. Appeals go to the Court of Federal Claims, then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C.

The vaccine court and the compensation program are funded by vaccine manufacturers. The theory is that plaintiffs will be compensated for injuries fairly and quickly, and the manufacturers will avoid the costs of litigation. The public health objective was to keep manufacturers from exiting the vaccine market altogether in an effort to avoid litigation.

We’ll discuss the Court’s majority and minority opinions in our next post.

Source: Associated Press, “Parents lose high court appeal in vaccine case,” Mark Sherman, 02/22/11


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