Feb 25 2011

Supreme Court Decision on Vaccine Injury

I previously wrote about the case of Hannah Bruesewitz, a girl who developed a seizure disorder soon after receiving her third in a series of five DTwP vaccines. (You may want to read the previous post before going on, and this post is a follow up.) To briefly recap – Hannah’s parents claim that the DTwP vaccine caused their daughter’s brain injury and seizure disorder. They sued in vaccine court and their case was dismissed. So they decided to file a civil suit.

The Supreme Court has now ruled on whether or not the parents can sue in civil court for an alleged vaccine injury – and they decided 6-2 that the answer is no.

There are a couple of issues here. One (which was actually not the focus of the SC ruling) is whether or not the DTwP vaccine causes neurological injury. I reviewed the literature in my last post – essentially the evidence is against a link between this vaccine and any neurological injury. However, the DTwP has largely been replaced with the DTaP vaccine, which is potentially safer.

The Bruesewitz’s case is that the vaccine manufacturer, Wyeth (now owned by Pfizer), were slow to update their vaccine from DTwP to DTaP, and this resulted in Hannah getting the older vaccine which caused her injury. This relates to the purpose of the vaccine court.

In 1986 the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act created a special court, the vaccine court, the purpose of which is to provide an alternate method for determining who deserves compensation for a possible vaccine injury. The vaccine court functions to protect both citizens and vaccine manufacturers. It provides an expedited route to compensation, with a generously low threshold for evidence. For certain listed injuries, compensation is automatic.

According to Time:

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act “reflects a sensible choice to leave complex epidemiological judgments about vaccine design to the FDA and the National Vaccine Program rather than juries,” Justice Scalia wrote on behalf of the Court.

This does not mean that vaccine manufacturers cannot be held accountable for the quality of their products. Essentially this means that they cannot be sued for any side effect of vaccines. These are considered unavoidable risks, risks which we accept because they are vastly outweighed by the benefits. The vaccine court compensates those who may have suffered a side effect. Without this avenue vaccine manufacturing in this country would not be viable.

But vaccine manufacturers can still be held accountable for avoidable harm due to a manufacturing defect. And this was the focus of the recent Supreme Court decision – did Hannah suffer from the result of a manufacturing defect? Should the alleged delay in updating from DTwP to DTaP be considered a manufacturing defect? The Supreme Court’s answer is no.

This is an important decision because otherwise, if the definition of “manufacturing defect” were expanded, it could open the flood gates to a host of law suits against the vaccine industry. The anti-vaccine movement would exploit this to bring down the vaccine industry – which is their stated goal.

Orac goes into more detail on this issue if you are interested, including  a review of the Health Ranger’s frothing anarchistic paranoia about the topic.

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