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Supreme Court Curbs Lawsuits Over Vaccines

by Glenn Hess
February 28, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 9

The Supreme Court ruled last week that a federal law prohibits product liability lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for the rare but serious side effects that can result from childhood vaccines. By a 6–2 vote, the court ruled against the parents of a child who attempted to sue Pfizer’s Wyeth unit in Pennsylvania state court for the seizures and other health problems they say their daughter, now 19, suffered after receiving a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine as an infant in 1992. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 established a special tribunal to handle such claims as a way to provide compensation to injured children without driving pharmaceutical companies from the vaccine market. “The vaccine manufacturers fund from their sales an informal, efficient compensation program for vaccine injuries,” Scalia wrote. “In exchange they avoid costly tort litigation and the occasional disproportionate jury verdict.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice ­Sonia Sotomayor argued that if manufacturers are shielded from lawsuits, they “will often have little or no incentive to improve the designs of vaccines that are already generating significant profit margins.”


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