At issue was the underlying notion of preemption - in this case, whether a federal law known as the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 prevented the Bruesewitz family from pressing their lawsuit, which was rejected by a federal vaccine court that is empowered to provide compensation. Pfizer argued that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the family would have sparked countless lawsuits, including some claiming links to autism, and threatened the supply of childhood vaccines.
The 1986 law says that a vaccine maker should not be held liable in a civil action if an injury was caused by unavoidable side effects, “even if the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.” In other words, the provision bars lawsuits in state courts, but with an exception - claims except those alleging a manufacturing defect or a failure to warn (back story).
And that is what the family cited in its petition to the Supreme Court. In their lawsuit, the family argued her seizures and serious developmental delay were caused by the vaccine, and that a safer alternative had been available but not made available. The DTP vaccine was eventually taken off the market in 1998 and replaced.
But a majority of justices, who voted 6-to-2 in favor of vaccine makers, disagreed. “The vaccine manufacturers fund from their sales an informal, efficient compensation program for vaccine injuries,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. “In exchange they avoid costly tort litigation and the occasional disproportionate jury verdict.” In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote tha that the ruling “leaves a regulatory vacuum in which no one ensures that vaccine manufacturers adequately take account of scientific and technological advancements when designing or distributing their products" (here is the ruling).
The vaccine court, by the way, has awarded more than $1.8 billion for vaccine injury claims in nearly 2,500 cases since 1989, Reuters notes. In a statement, American Academy of Pediatrics president O. Marion Burton hailed the ruling: "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.”
pix appears from WTAE