By Robert Barnes, Washington Post Staff Writer
Federal law protects pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits by parents who claim that vaccines harmed their children, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court ruled 6 to 2 that going before a special tribunal set up by Congress is the only way parents can be compensated for the negative side effects that in rare instances accompany vaccinations.
The majority said that Congress found such a system necessary to ensure that vaccines remain readily available, and that federal regulators are in the best position to decide whether vaccines are safe and properly designed.
The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 “reflects a sensible choice to leave complex epidemiological judgments about vaccine design to the FDA and the National Vaccine Program rather than juries,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, referring to the Food and Drug Administration.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the threat of lawsuits provides an incentive for vaccine manufacturers to constantly monitor and improve their products.
The decision “leaves a regulatory vacuum in which no one – neither the FDA nor any other federal agency, nor state and federal juries – ensures that vaccine manufacturers adequately take account of scientific and technological advancements,” Sotomayor wrote.
The decision is a victory for vaccine makers such as Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline. Kathleen Sullivan, who represented Wyeth in the case before the court, told justices that ruling against the company could lead to thousands of lawsuits in which parents claim, for instance, that the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine played a role in their children’s autism.