On the first of March, the United States Supreme Court accepted the appeal of parents who say that vaccines can cause serious health problems. The case involves the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz of Pennsylvania and began in 1992, when the Congressional judicial forum for vaccine safety heard the case and denied it. Since then, the case has been threading its way through the courts.
At issue in this case, labeled Russel Bruesewitz, et al., Petitioners v. Wyeth Inc., fka Wyeth Laboratories, et al (09-152)1 or just Bruesewitz v. Wyeth Inc., is whether the vaccine case can be heard in civil courts outside of the Congressional forum.
Congress set up a special judicial forum in 1986 to address claims against vaccine makers outside of civil courts as a measure to protect those vaccine companies from frivolous lawsuits. Opponents of this special treatment argue that this effectively gives pharmaceutical companies legal immunity from the harm their products could be doing to individuals. Proponents of the judicial forum claim that it ensures a steady supply of vaccines without the impedance that court proceedings could put on them.
Hannah Bruesewitz was a healthy infant in 1992 when she was given a series of DPT shots (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus). After the third in the series, she began to have seizures and is now partially disabled as a teenager with residual seizure disorder.
The initial claim to the vaccine court by the Bruesewitz parents was that Wyeth had failed to warn parents of the risks associated with the DPT vaccines. Their claim was rejected by the vaccine court, but the family’s lawyers found that if the harmful side effects were avoidable, they could appeal this in civil court, which they did. That case is now going to the Supreme Court.
Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer Inc., won the case in federal appeals court.2 The court concluded that the design-defect claims were barred under statute and could only be heard by the Congressional court. Pfizer, however, agreed with the Bruesewitz parents’ appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping to have the case heard in the highest court in order to achieve a final resolution on the broader legal question of liability and the Congressional court’s mandate itself.
At issue now is not just a question of whether legal liability is due to the Bruesewitz family, but also whether any other parents or families with children who’ve been victimized by vaccines can seek compensation outside of the Congressional buffer court itself. If Pfizer wins in the Supreme Court, this would likely make it nearly impossible for anyone to appeal a Congressional court decision against their claims. It would fundamentally change the legal process in regards to vaccine safety and liability.
1 – Russel Bruesewitz, et al., Petitioners v. Wyeth Inc., fka Wyeth Laboratories, et al (09-152) docket.
2 – Court Rules Against Lawsuits Over Vaccine Injuries by Jon Hood, ConsumerAffairs.com