WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a federal law bars lawsuits against drugmakers over serious side effects from childhood vaccines.
By a 6-2 vote, the court ruled against a Pittsburgh couple who sued the drugmaker Wyeth in Pennsylvania state court for the health problems they say their daughter, now 19, suffered from a vaccine she received in infancy. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because of her work on the case as U.S. solicitor general.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said Congress set up a special vaccine court to handle such claims as a way to provide compensation to injured children without driving drug manufacturers from the vaccine market. The idea, he said, was to create a no-fault system that spares the drug companies the costs of defending against parents' lawsuits.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Nothing in the 1986 law "remotely suggests that Congress intended such a result," Sotomayor wrote, taking issue with Scalia.
Scalia's opinion was a stinging defeat for parents who found their awards from the vaccine court insufficient or who failed to collect at all.
Such was the case for Robalee and Russell Bruesewitz of Pittsburgh, who filed their lawsuit after the vaccine court rejected their claims for compensation. According to the lawsuit, their daughter, Hannah, was a healthy infant until she received the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine in April 1992. The vaccine was made by Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer Inc.
Scalia said that when a vaccine is properly prepared and is accompanied by proper directions and warnings, lawsuits over its side effects are not allowed under the 1986 law.