Supreme Court Rules Federal Law Shields Vaccine Makers from Suits

By | February 22, 2011

The Supreme Court ruled that federal law shields vaccine makers from product liability lawsuits in state court seeking damages for a child’s injuries or death from a vaccine’s side effects.

The high court on Tuesday ruled for Wyeth, which is now owned by Pfizer Inc., in a lawsuit brought by the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz, who suffered seizures as an infant after her third dose of a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine in 1992.

Pfizer and other vaccine makers argued that a Supreme Court ruling for the plaintiffs could open the door to a flood of lawsuits — many by families who believe vaccines cause autism — and threaten the supply of childhood vaccines.

At issue was the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, a law adopted by Congress that created a special program to handle disputes in an effort to ensure a stable vaccine supply by shielding companies from most lawsuits.

The federal program, involving what is known as the vaccine court, has awarded more than $1.8 billion for vaccine injury claims in nearly 2,500 cases since 1989. It is funded by a tax on vaccines.

In the Hannah Bruesewitz case from Pennsylvania, Bruesewitz’s parents claimed in their lawsuit that her seizure disorder and serious developmental delay stemmed from toxins in the vaccine’s design.

They said a safer alternative had been available but was not used. The DTP vaccine was taken off the market in 1998 and replaced.

Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz said their daughter was a healthy infant until she received the shot, but has experienced seizure disorders and developmental problems ever since, requiring a lifetime of supervision and care.

Wyeth has denied its vaccine caused her injuries.

After the couple’s claims were rejected under the federal compensation process, they filed a lawsuit in state court. But a federal judge and then a federal appeals court based in Philadelphia ruled the 1986 federal law barred such lawsuits.

The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, upheld that decision and ruled the federal law preempted all such design-defect claims against vaccine manufacturers.

(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and John Wallace)

<a href="Bruesewitz v Wyeth- Vaccine Liability “>Supreme Court Opinion

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