Thursday, March 19, 2015

Supreme Court May Reconsider Vaccines' Immunity From Lawsuits

Wednesday, 18 Mar 2015 11:53 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether people who suffer harmful vaccine side effects should have an easier time winning compensation from the government.

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Congress created what’s known as the vaccine court in 1986, setting up a no-fault system to shield drug makers from crippling jury awards and compensate those who are hurt in the pursuit of a greater public good. The question about how the system works -- and whether more injured parties should get the benefit of the doubt -- is being raised as some contagious diseases including measles resurface and debate rages over whether vaccine skeptics should be allowed to choose not to have their children inoculated.

“The government is in a difficult position,” said Ed Kraus, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who represents plaintiffs in vaccine cases. He said the U.S. is walking a tightrope in trying to protect all Americans’ health as well as those few who have bad reactions to vaccines.

The court works well for many, he said, but when cases aren’t clear-cut “it’s not meeting the needs of people who have legitimate claims because the science is so complex and the burden of proof is high.”

The case the Supreme Court will this week consider taking was filed by the parents of Ilya Dobrydnev, who had a hepatitis B vaccination in 2001, when he was 10. He had a fever, swollen lymph nodes, inner ear inflammation and eventually debilitating memory loss. Now 23, he’s disabled by chronic fatigue syndrome.

In 2004, his lawyer petitioned the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The vaccine court -- which consists of special masters at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims -- in 2013 granted his parents $1 million and annual payments to cover the cost of his care.

Victim-Friendly Standard

The U.S. Justice Department challenged the decision the next year, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence of cause to support such an award, and a federal appeals court overturned it. The Dobrydnevs’ Supreme Court petition claims the government set too high a bar and asks the justices to order the vaccine court to adhere to the more victim-friendly standard their lawyer contends was envisioned by Congress.

“I happen to think vaccines are extremely important for public health,” said their lawyer, Mark Friedlander of McLean, Virginia. “But if something goes wrong, people think the government’s going to be there for them. They’re not.”

Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case. The Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether to take it on Friday.

Vaccine Tax

The vaccine court was created after a wave of litigation in the 1980s, including high-profile verdicts against makers of whooping cough and polio immunizations. Huge civil judgments raised prices and reduced the number of companies willing to make vaccines. That threatened public health goals.

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