March 1, 2011

We were talking about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a vaccine product liability case. The plaintiffs believe their daughter’s seizure disorder was triggered by a vaccine. Their claim was denied by the vaccine court, the adjudicative body created under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 to assess the validity of vaccine-related injuries. They sued the drug manufacturer. Hearing “no” from every corner, they appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court backed up the Vaccine Act in a 6-2 vote. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, stated that the Act specifically prohibited lawsuits in cases when the vaccine is properly prepared and accompanied by proper directions and warnings. Lower courts had found that the plaintiffs could not definitively link the vaccine to their daughter’s condition.

The majority said the objective of the Vaccine Act was to establish a system that would spare the drug manufacturers the expense of defending civil actions. In so doing, the system would also ensure that manufacturers continue to develop and to market vaccines.

Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies and the American Academy of Pediatrics praised the decision. The Court’s ruling “protects children by strengthening our national immunization system,” according to the doctors’ group. The new owner of the company that manufactured the vaccine in the case affirmed its belief that the Vaccine Act provided “full consideration” for issues like the plaintiffs’.

The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, said the majority had missed the plaintiff’s main argument. The complaint didn’t rely solely on the argument that the vaccine was dangerous. Rather, the plaintiffs argued that the manufacturer was slow to develop a safer vaccine because it wouldn’t be profitable. In essence, the manufacturer knew it was protected by the Vaccine Act from “runaway” damage awards, so the company decided it didn’t have to invest in a new and safer formula.

The plaintiffs are not the only ones to suffer the defeat, according to their attorney. He said that the decision meant that families of victims of defectively designed vaccines now “have no remedy at law.”

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


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