Supremes restrict vaccine claims to special court

Experts trump juries when it comes to vaccine-injury claims, the U.S. Supreme Court decided. In other words, parents and injured victims can't sue vaccine makers in state court, because a 1986 law that set up a special vaccines court pre-empts other claims.

The case: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, in which the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz sued the company, saying that its DTP vaccine caused her seizure disorder--and that the company knew it could produce a safer shot, but chose not to. The Bruesewitzes took their claims to vaccine court first, but were denied, so they sued.

The Supremes voted six to two in Wyeth's favor, saying that the company, now owned by Pfizer, couldn't be held liable. The 1986 law, designed to make sure vaccine makers didn't abandon the market, set up a compensation system for any vaccine-related injuries precisely to protect companies from court claims. "The vaccine manufacturers fund from their sales an informal, efficient compensation program for vaccine injuries," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "In exchange they avoid costly tort litigation and the occasional disproportionate jury verdict."

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a concurrent opinion that the vaccine court's access to "expert medical opinion" made it a more valid venue for injury claims. Letting juries determine the outcome in vaccine cases would "substitute less expert for more expert judgment," he wrote.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying that Congress didn't intend to bar parents and victims from state courts. "Congress intended to leave the courthouse doors open for children who have suffered severe injuries from defectively designed vaccines," Sotomayor wrote.

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