WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters Legal) - The U.S. 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
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 an administrative
court to hear vaccine-related claims. The special court, which
provides an alternate form of compensation to plaintiffs, was
created to ensure a stable vaccine supply by shielding
manufacturers from liability.
The so-called 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 that her seizure disorder and
serious developmental delay stemmed from toxins in the
They said a safer alternative had been available but was not
used. The DTP vaccine was taken off the market in 1998 and
Wyeth has denied its vaccine caused the 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 that the wording of the
vaccine liability shield suggested that legislators intended it
to protect manufacturers from all tort claims based on
"Vaccine manufacturers fund from their sales an informal,
efficient compensation program for vaccine injuries; in
exchange they avoid costly tort litigation and the occasional
disproportionate jury verdict. Congress enacted this deal to
coax manufacturers back into the vaccine market," Scalia said.
In dissent, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
argued that the majority's decision to bar all claims upset a
policy balance in which Congress intended on the one hand to
encourage vaccination protection and, on the other, to
compensate children injured by vaccines.
Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the decision.
The ruling accepted the Obama administration's position.
O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of
Pediatrics, which represents 60,000 pediatricians, applauded
"Today, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed what pediatricians
have been advocating for decades," Dr. Burton said. "Vaccines
The case is: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, Supreme Court of the
United States, No. 09-152.
For the parents: David Frederick of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen,
Todd, Evans & Figel; Collyn Peddie
For the vaccine makers: Kathleen Sullivan of Quinn Emanuel
Urquhart & Sullivan; Daniel Thomasch of Orrick Herrington &
(Reporting by James Vicini of Reuters; Additional reporting
by Jeff Roberts of Reuters Legal)