Closely Watched Vaccine Injury Claim Reaches Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court today hears a pivotal case on how families who say their children were injured by vaccines should be compensated. The current system was established by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986, when vaccine manufacturers were facing a flood of lawsuits and threatening to pull out of the vaccine-making business. The act set up a "vaccine court" and a tax-funded compensation pot that doles out money for injuries linked to various childhood vaccines.

But the family of 18-year-old Hannah Bruesewitz says that she hasn't been served well by this system. They argue that she suffered seizures and developmental delays following a DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine manufactured by Wyeth, which she got as a 6-month-old back in 1992. Wyeth eventually withdrew this vaccine from the market. However, the vaccine court didn't recognize Bruesewitz's claim because, 1 month before her case was filed, the type of complications she experienced were removed from a list of those entitled to compensation, based on epidemiological evidence that vaccines weren't the cause.

The Bruesewitzes argue that they are entitled to sue Wyeth (now part of the drug company Pfizer): The Vaccine Act, they say, doesn't shield companies from "design-defect claims." In this case, they contend the DTP vaccine their daughter got had a "scientifically outmoded design" and that "Wyeth declined to change its DTP vaccine's design because it viewed the economic costs as outweighing any potential gain in market share."

Wyeth disputes this. It says it is protected from liability in this case by the 1986 Vaccine Act. An appeals court sided with Wyeth, and the Bruesewitzes took their case to the Supreme Court.

The case highlights both flaws in the vaccine court system and fears about what will happen if lawsuits like the Bruesewitzes' can go forward. Today, many parents fear that autism can be caused by vaccines, even though the link has been disproven by a number of studies. About 5000 cases alleging autism caused by vaccines are awaiting judgment from the vaccine court. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Bruesewitzes, this could bring "a crushing wave" of lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, Wyeth argued in its court filing.

In the case being heard today, most scientists are siding with Wyeth: 22 professional and scientific groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America argue in an amicus brief that "the Vaccine Act provides adequate compensation to children injured by vaccines." They say that opening companies up to lawsuits "could drive vaccine manufacturers from the market and halt the future production and development of childhood vaccines in this country."

Another amicus brief on behalf of 11 prominent scientists, including DNA discoverer James Watson, makes similar points.

On the flip side, the Bruesewitz family and its supporters, including advocacy groups like Public Citizen, say that the status quo has serious flaws. Unlike other medical treatments for which companies are driven to keep their products safe because of liability threats, their brief says "the Vaccine Program itself provides no incentive to vaccine manufacturers to make their vaccines safer."

These and other briefs in the case can be seen here.