January 28, 2023

Supreme Court Says Parents Can’t Sue Vaccine Makers In Court

In Bruesewitz v Wyeth, decided in February, Justice Scalia opined that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 was designed to protect the vaccine industry from overwhelming litigation while providing a mechanism to compensate injuries stemming from vaccinations. The law provided that “no vaccine manufacturer shall be held liable in a civil action” for an injury that “resulted from side effects that were unavoidable.” The court found that this language bars any design-defect claims. Instead, victims must go in front of the Vaccine Court, which the 1986 law created. If compensated, the money comes from a fund created by a tax on drug makers.

Design-defect is a particularly contentious type of product liability case, because a victory by the plaintiff can open up the defendant to incredible liability. If one plaintiff can prove that the design of the particular product is defective, then the defendant is potentially liable for the use of every one of those products. Generally, after showing a defect in design, the plaintiff will also have to prove that the defect was unreasonably dangerous, although jurisdictions vary on how to determine whether a defective design is unreasonably dangerous.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U.S. government agreed with the majority, arguing that the decision enhanced the national immunization system, thereby protecting the most fragile. The American Association for Justice, however, agreed with the dissent, arguing that it was necessary for drug manufacturers to defendant themselves in court in order to truly force them to live up to their duty of providing safe vaccines to the market place. They contend that the decision is a disincentive for drug manufacturers to live up to that duty.
When faced with the possibility of a defectively designed product, defendants will fight as hard as possible. In this case that fight took them all the way to the Supreme Court, where their legal fees most likely amounted to more than it would have cost them to compensate this one victim. However, if they were to lose this battle it could have cost them tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate all the victims. Perhaps this case was a victory for children in the future, but it was definitely a victory for the defendant and the vaccination industry.

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