These days, with the Supreme Court in the news so much, you may feel that you’ve heard it all about the American court system. However, there is a special court, called the vaccine court, which you may not have heard of.
What is the US Vaccine Court?
The vaccine court handles claims against vaccine manufacturers. These claims cannot be filed in state or federal civil courts. Instead, there is a special U.S. Court of Federal Claims; the Office of Special Masters is commonly known as the vaccine court.
Cases must be heard in this court without a jury, and the court operates under the no-fault system, meaning that the vaccine manufacturer can be held legally responsible even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the company.
How did this court come about?
In the 1980s, the nation had a scare over the DPT vaccine supply. DPT is a combination vaccine that fights three infectious diseases — diptheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough) and tetanus. Many Americans claimed side effects from the vaccine supply, even though health officials at the time said the claims were unfounded. As a result of this event, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) in 1986 and established the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) in 1988. Many cases went to trial, with juries giving very large compensations to some plaintiffs. Shortly thereafter, most DPT vaccine makers stopped production.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up the NVICP to compensate families of children injured by vaccines. Any compensation received must be used to cover “medical and legal expenses, loss of future earning capacity, up to $250,000 for pain and suffering, and a death benefit of up to $250,000.” The compensation fund is amassed by charging a 75-cent tax on every dose of vaccine listed in the NVICP table of covered vaccines.
A plaintiff must be able to prove that an injury, as listed on the NVICP list of possible injuries (called the Vaccine Injury Table), is directly caused by a vaccine. Specifically, the court says that causation must:
- Prove a medical theory connecting the vaccination to the injury
- Show a logical cause-and-effect sequence that the vaccine led to the injury
- Show the timing of the vaccine leading to the injury
The vaccine court is usually the final ruling; some unsuccessful claims have been pursued in civil court, but this is a rare occurrence. Filing with the federal vaccine court involves a $250 filing fee which is waived in certain conditions when the plaintiff can demonstrate an inability to pay. Even if a plaintiff is unsuccessful, legal expenses are typically compensated if the plaintiff meets certain NVICP minimal requirements. The court even maintains a list of lawyers who can help plaintiffs. The court invokes a three-year statute of limitations from the date of the first medical issue.
Court Has Ruled Vaccines led to Fibromyalgia, Hepatitis B, MS and More
In past cases, the court has ruled that the MMR vaccine led to fibromyalgia, that the hepatitis B vaccine led to multiple sclerosis, and that the tetanus vaccine caused optic neuritis, despite claims there is no supporting scientific evidence for such links.
More recently, the vaccine court has predominantly dealt with claims of vaccines causing autism. In a 30-year period from 1988 to 2018, thousands of claims relating to autism have been filed. Traditional medical literature cites no evidence to support a link between vaccines and autism. However, many parents attribute their child’s autism to vaccines, with some claiming that the thimerosal preservative used in vaccines was the culprit. However, most autism claims have been dismissed by the court.
All decisions of the court are made available to the public via the internet unless the plaintiff or vaccine manufacturer files an objection with the court. In the past, some manufacturers have cited that public information would divulge trade secrets or other confidential company information, or medical files of patients.
One Woman’s Vaccine Court Story
The latest report available is from government fiscal year 2016, which contained several awards near or exceeding $1 million. In one case of plaintiff Montez Petronelli, the court awarded Ms. Petronelli nearly $2 million, saying that she suffered a debilitating neurological disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) as a result of an influenza vaccine in 2010. Petronelli produced detailed medical records and an expert doctor’s testimony which effectively linked her GBS to the flu vaccine.
Montez received her flu vaccine on September 28, 2010, and was immediately sick for weeks before seeing her primary care physician on October 21, 2010. Montez reported symptoms of a chest cold, cough and sore throat with nasal congestion. Thinking she had a sinus infection, the doctor prescribed antibiotics.
Montez also experienced fatigue and muscle aches, thought to be brought on by the stress of studying for a college entrance exam. Four days later, Montez fainted and was taken to the emergency room by her husband. The ER physician ordered blood tests, and Montez went home, awaiting the results, but worsened by experiencing extreme weakness and loss of balance. She soon experienced numbness in her limbs and shortness of breath. Doctors eventually diagnosed her with GBS.
Denise Kowell, Chief Special Master, of the vaccine court, ultimately ruled that she found “that there is preponderant evidence that petitioner’s September 28, 2010 influenza vaccination was a substantial cause of her GBS and that sequelae from petitioner’s GBS persisted for more than six months.”
You can learn more about the vaccine court by visiting their website.