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Supreme Court bars lawsuits over side effects from children's vaccines

The Supreme Court upholds a federal law that offers compensation to victims while shielding vaccine makers from lawsuits by parents.

February 23, 2011|By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court has shielded the nation's vaccine makers from being sued by parents who say their children suffered severe side effects from these drugs.

By a 6-2 vote, the court instead upheld a federal law that offers compensation to these victims but also closes the courthouse door to lawsuits.

Justice Antonin Scalia said Tuesday that the high court agreed with Congress that side effects were "unavoidable" when a vaccine is given to millions of children. If the drug makers could be sued and forced to pay huge claims for devastating injuries, the vaccine industry could be wiped out, he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics applauded the decision. "Childhood vaccines are among the greatest medical breakthroughs of the last century," said Dr. O. Marion Burton, the group's president. "Today's Supreme Court decision protects children by strengthening our national immunization system and ensuring that vaccines will continue to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in this country."

The ruling dealt a defeat to parents of Hannah Bruesewitz, who as a child was given a standard vaccination for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. She later suffered a series of seizures, and her development was delayed.

Her parents sought compensation for her injuries, but their claim was turned down. They then sued the drug maker in a Pennsylvania court, contending that the vaccine was defectively designed.

A judge and the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled they were barred from suing, and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, arguing that Congress did not mean to shield drug makers from suits if their vaccines were defective and prone to cause injuries. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

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