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Supreme Court Weighs Whether Vaccine Makers Can Be Sued

Publication Date: 
October 12, 2010
PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer
Jim Lehrer

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today about legal protections for vaccine manufacturers.

The issue today was whether vaccine makers should continue to be shielded from most lawsuits for damages. The arguments involved 18-year-old Hannah Bruesewitz of Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Her parents blame her neurological problems on a childhood vaccine. They want to sue Wyeth Labs, which now owns the company that made the medicine.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, passed by Congress in 1986, established a no-fault system of compensation in such cases. The law set up a special vaccine court to confirm injuries and to award damages accordingly. The goal was to shield drug companies from repeated lawsuits, and thereby guarantee steady supplies of vaccine.


JIM LEHRER: Well, explain, what would the chain be, that there would be so many lawsuits that pharmaceutical companies would just quit making vaccines; it would be to risky for them legally and financially?

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Wyeth's counsel, Kathleen Sullivan, said that this type of lawsuit, design defect, was exactly...


MARCIA COYLE: But Ms. Sullivan said that this was the exact kind of lawsuit that Congress was worried about back in the 1980s, when vaccine makers faced an onslaught of personal injury suits resulting from vaccines. So, they enacted this law in order to bar this type of lawsuit.


MARCIA COYLE: OK. Justice Ginsburg pressed Wyeth's attorney, Ms. Sullivan, a couple times, saying, well, you know, if Congress had meant to block these lawsuits, it would have said so. But it didn't.



And there is a presumption that the court has applied over the years in these cases, a presumption against federal law preempting state law. So she just felt that, if Congress wanted to preempt it, it would have said that clearly.

Justice Kennedy said, well, you know, maybe it was a sloppy drafting. Congress doesn't always write clearly. And Ms. Sullivan said, well, they could have written more clearly, but she still reads the provision to block this type of lawsuit.

Justice Sotomayor raised some concerns here. She seemed somewhat sympathetic to the family here, feeling that, if you don't have, say, these state lawsuits on defective designs, what is there to encourage vaccine makers to come forward when there are problems with the vaccine? Who is policing this? She tried several times to find out, what's the role of the FDA? What's the role of the Centers for Disease Control?


MARCIA COYLE: Ms. Sullivan pointed out that there are 5,000 autism vaccine-related cases now in the vaccine court. And she raised the possibility that, depending on how the court rules, that could open another avenue for vaccine makers to be sued.