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Supreme Court Begins Hearing Vaccine Lawsuit Case

October 13, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments on Tuesday as they prepare to determine whether or not vaccine makers can be sued for alleged side effects caused by their products.

At the heart of the case is the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which was passed in order to protect vaccine makers from liability and to encourage them to remain in the industry, producing the much-needed drugs to protect kids from dangerous illnesses.

The law is being challenged by the family of 18-year-old Hannah Bruesewitz of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Hannah’s parents, Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz, sued vaccine maker Wyeth, which is now part of Pfizer. The Bruesewitz family blames the company’s diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine for causing seizures and neurological damage she suffered as an infant.

According to KDKA News out of Pittsburgh, Hannah’s seizures began just hours after she received her third DTP shot in 1992. They sued Wyeth in a special tribunal established by the 1986 law, but they lost their bid to seek compensation for her injuries. The Bruesewitz family then attempted to sue in a state court, which they were informed was not legally permitted.

Now, some 15 years after the initial lawsuit, the Supreme Court is hearing the case, and attempting to make sense of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.

Reuters Health and Science Editor Maggie Fox reported on Wednesday that the Supreme Court justices were attempting to unravel the “convoluted wording” of the 1986 law, and that they “struggled to understand the meaning of the law and of the intended lawsuit.” Likewise, she quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying that the language used in the legislation was “to say the least, confusing.”

Under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, companies such as Wyeth cannot be held liable “if the injury and death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and accompanied by proper direction and warnings,” according to AFP.

If the Supreme Court rules that the Bruesewitz family can sue, it could also open the door for other, similar lawsuits–including ones by the families of children whose autism may have been caused by some common vaccines. A ruling isn’t expected until early 2011, claims Fox.

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