Organized medicine urges Supreme Court to take vaccine case

Physicians want justices to reverse a Georgia ruling they fear could jeopardize access to childhood vaccines.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted June 5, 2009

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Childhood vaccine supplies could be endangered if a recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling is allowed to stand.

That's according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in April by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and several other physician and public health organizations.

The groups are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the October 2008 Georgia decision, which would allow cases alleging injury from childhood vaccines to be tried by juries, instead of through a special no-fault system set up under the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act. The federal system requires vaccine manufacturers to provide compensation for proven injuries without assigning any fault.

Shifting such claims back to the courts could lead to unpredictable litigation costs and force vaccine manufacturers to halt production of necessary treatments, as they did before passage of the 1986 law, the medical community's brief argued. The 1986 law was enacted, the brief said, both to protect injured children and to safeguard the nation's supply of the vaccines, which have helped eradicate a number of life-threatening infectious diseases.

The Georgia ruling conflicts with the purpose of the federal statute and "could lead to the very same crisis that Congress sought to prevent," AAP attorney Stephan E. Lawton said in a statement. "There is a genuine threat to our nation's public health if manufacturers abandon or consider abandoning the production of vaccines."

The Georgia Supreme Court found that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act did not preempt all types of liability claims against manufacturers, only those in which an injury was "unavoidable," despite proper preparation of the vaccine and adequate warning labels. Whether an alleged harm was avoidable, however, was a question to be determined by a jury on a case-by-case basis, the court said.

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