By: Barry Meier
11 October 2010
The safety of vaccines is at the heart of a case expected to be heard on Tuesday by the United States Supreme Court, one that could have implications for hundreds of lawsuits that contend there is a link between vaccines and autism.
At issue is whether a no-fault system established by Congress about 25 years ago to compensate children and others injured by commonly used vaccines should protect manufacturers from virtually all product liability lawsuits. The law was an effort to strike a balance between the need to provide care for those injured by vaccines, some of them severely, and the need to protect manufacturers from undue litigation.
Under the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, such claims typically proceed through an alternative legal system known as “vaccine court.” Under that system, a person is compensated if their injury is among those officially recognized as caused by a vaccine. That person, or their parents, can choose to reject that award and sue the vaccine’s manufacturer, but they then face severe legal hurdles created by law to deter such actions.
The case before the Supreme Court is not related to autism. But the biggest effect of the court’s ruling, lawyers said, will be on hundreds of pending lawsuits that contend a link exists between childhood vaccines and autism. Repeated scientific studies have found no such connection.
Also, in several test case rulings over the last two years, administrative judges in vaccine court have held that autism-related cases did not qualify for compensation. During the last decade, about 5,800 of the 7,900 claims filed in vaccine court, or about 75 percent, have been autism-related, federal data show.
Federal data shows that $154 million was paid in fiscal 2010 to 154 claimants involved in vaccine court proceedings. That figure was significantly higher than in preceding years and reflected several unusually high awards, officials involved in the program said.
In the five preceding fiscal years, an average of $68 million in compensation was paid out on an annual basis, federal data indicates. A compensation fund is financed by an excise tax on vaccinations.