SCOTUS agrees to take vaccines case

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari in the case over the question of whether people injured by vaccines can sue drugmakers in state and federal court.

SCOTUS Monday agreed to hear an appeal from parents of Hannah Bruesewitz, who suffers from seizures after taking a DTP vaccine from a batch made by Wyeth. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia affirmed a lower court ruling that Robalee and Russell Bruesewitz couldn't sue Wyeth in that court for their child's injury because the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act "preempted all design defect claims." It also ruled the parents hadn't demonstrated that Wyeth failed to adequately warn them about the risks associated with the vaccine.

As BNet notes, any allegation of injury or death associated with a vaccine gets heard by a federal vaccine court, where damages are capped at $250,000. This arrangement gives injured parties somewhere to get justice while protecting vaccine makers from the financial ruin these cases would bring if they were heard by regular juries.

The Philly court's ruling contrasts with a October 2008 decision by the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld a judgment by a state appeals court. The appeals court had ruled in favor of a couple who sued several vaccine manufacturers, alleging their son suffered neurological damage caused by vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. The appeals court was the first in the nation to decide that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act doesn't preempt state law permitting such lawsuits.

Wyeth is joining in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, saying it presented an important and recurring legal issue that should be resolved, the Philadelphia Inquier notes.

Although the Bruesewitz case isn't directly related to autism, Jim Edwards of BNet and In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe believe the vaccines-cause-autism crowd will be watching this case with great interest. And--based on SCOTUS' decision--they will be preparing, as Edwards writes, to flood courts with more than "5,000 lawsuits advancing the wrong-headed claim that vaccines cause autism." Edwards asserts that such lawsuits could threaten the vaccine supply, as the extra legal costs would put vaccine makers out of business.

Word of SCOTUS' decision comes a little over a week after the publication in the journal Pediatrics of survey results of 1,552 parents with children younger than 17 years. A wide majority of respondents (90 percent) agreed that getting vaccines is a good way to protect their children from disease; however, a quarter indicated they believe vaccines can cause autism. The parents were surveyed more than a year before the Lancet decided to retract Andrew Wakefield's controversial study linking vaccines to autism.

The study authors maintain it is likely parents would benefit from programs that highlight the rigorous safety assessments vaccines must go through before licensure and subsequent recommendation. "[I]f current safety concerns are not addressed effectively and increase in the future," more parents might refuse vaccines, reducing their child's protection against a potentially preventable disease, the authors caution.

- read the Inquier's coverage
- check out BNet's take
- see the post by Derek Lowe