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Vaccine Product Liability Case Before Supreme Court

The teenage daughter of a Pennsylvania couple received a DTP vaccine made by Wyeth when she was an infant. She developed a seizure disorder afterward and is now profoundly impaired. After many years, her case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, and its ruling will have a huge effect on whether federal law protects vaccine manufacturers in product liability lawsuits.

The Court heard initial arguments espousing opposite positions on the matter on Tuesday, October 12. Wyeth argued that the current law - the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 - must continue to act as a strong brake against product liability lawsuits. Without its protection, Wyeth argued, vaccine makers would incur costs that that could drive them out of business and adversely affect the country's vaccine supply.

Several justices seemed equally if not more concerned, though, with the possibility that preempting product liability suits under federal law - in other words, removing all threat of lawsuits for vaccine makers - could instill laxity in vaccine makers by removing their motivation to sufficiently invest in research and development and to consistently seek safer and better vaccines.

The Pennsylvania girl's family initially filed a claim for compensation under a vaccine program run through the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The claim was rejected, and the family then filed a suit in state court.

A U.S. appeals court ruled last year that the 1986 federal act preempted the state claim. One of the central questions that the Supreme Court is now focused upon is a provision in the law that states that a vaccine maker cannot be sued if side effects from a vaccine "were unavoidable." Several justices find that wording and its meaning to be unclear.

The Court is expected to announce its ruling in June 2011.

Related Resource: online.wsj.com "U.S. Supreme Court Weighs Consequences of Vaccine Case" October 12, 2010

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