Supreme Court Affirms Federal Preemption in Vaccine Case

By February 22, 2011Briefly Legal

The Supreme Court this morning decided an important case dealing with federal preemption, issuing a 6-2 opinion in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth that reaffirms Congress’ intent to protect vaccine manufacturers from speculative lawsuits in state courts.

Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986 that explicitly preempted all design-defect claims made under state product liability laws. At the same time, the law also created a no-fault compensation program — the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program — that allowed those parties injured by unavoidable vaccine side effects to either apply to the fund for compensation or reject such compensation and sue for damages in court.

The Court’s ruling means that the suits cannot claim defective design of the vaccine but must entail defective manufacture or warnings. Written by Justice Scalia, the opinion reaffirmed the explicit intent of Congress to rely on federal preemption to establish the most effective and fair system to address injuries from vaccines.

Trial lawyers are constantly trying to undermine the preemption principle in federal legislation and regulation in an attempt to multiply their opportunities for lawsuits against manufacturers. Today’s opinion rebuffs their efforts.

For more background, see the Scotusblog entry on the case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth.  Also, news coverage …

UPDATE (2:30 p.m.): From a news release from Pfizer, which acquired Wyeth, “U.S. Supreme Court Decision In Bruesewitz V. Wyeth A Win For Public Health“:

“Vaccines are one of modern medicine’s greatest success stories,” said Pfizer Executive Vice President and General Counsel Amy Schulman. “Their nearly universal administration to children is responsible for the elimination of polio and smallpox in the United States, and the near-elimination and containment of other childhood diseases. The Vaccine Act that Congress enacted nearly 25 years ago appropriately places the responsibility for determining the optimal design of life-saving childhood vaccines in the hands of expert federal agencies, not a patchwork of state tort systems. We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Third Circuit.”

The opinion of the Court, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, stated that “[The Vaccine Act] reflects a sensible choice to leave complex epidemiological judgments about vaccine design to the FDA and the National Vaccine Program rather than juries.”

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