Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that federal law protects pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits by parents who say that vaccines injured their children. Two Supreme Court Justices, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth. They said that the threat of lawsuits provides an incentive for vaccine makers to constantly monitor and improve their products.
The decision was a victory for the pharmaceutical companies who make vaccines. The attorney who represented Wyeth in the case before the court told justices that ruling against the pharmaceutical company could lead to thousands of lawsuits in which parents claim, for example, that the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine played a role in their children's autism. The Obama administration backed the vaccine makers while consumer groups and others supported the plaintiffs.
The case was brought to court by a couple on behalf of their 18-year-old daughter. The young woman began to have seizures as an infant after receiving the third of five scheduled doses of Wyeth's Tri-Immunol diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine. She now needs to be taken cared of for the rest of her life. Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer, has since taken the drug off the market.
The federal law at the time - 1986 - said that all such claims must first go to a special court frequently referred to as the "Vaccine Court," a tribunal that has awarded over $2.5 billion for vaccine-injury claims since 1989. It is paid for by a tax on vaccines. The Vaccine Court ruled against the parents who, in turn, sued under Pennsylvania tort law. The company had moved the case to federal court where and judges have consistently ruled that the suit cannot go forward, because federal law does not allow death or injury claims against vaccine makers arising from "design defects" in vaccines.