Vaccine court is the popular term which refers to the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which administers a no-fault system for litigating vaccine injury claims. Claims against vaccine manufacturers cannot initially be heard in state or federal civil courts, but instead must be heard first in the vaccine court. The program was established by the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA), passed by the United States Congress in response to a threat to the vaccine supply due a scare in the 1980s over the DPT vaccine. Despite the belief of most public health officials that claims of side effects were unfounded, large jury awards had been given to some claimants of DPT vaccine injuries, most DPT vaccine makers had ceased production, and officials feard the loss of herd immunity.
The parents of thousands of children with autistic spectrum disorders have attributed the onset of their children's developmental disorders to vaccines, often citing the vaccine preservative thiomersal as the cause, and they want compensation from vaccine makers. However, the medical and scientific community have consistently demonstrated that there is no link between routine childhood vaccines and autism.
National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) was created to provide a federal no-fault system for compensating vaccine-related injuries or death. Although the NCVIA requires vaccine injury claims to initially be brought before the "vaccine court", claims can still be filed in civil courts if claimants lose. The federal court hears cases without juries.
Several claimants have attempted to bypass the VICP process, with some successes so far. They have demanded medical monitoring for vaccinated children who do not show signs of autism, and have filed class-action suits on behalf of parents. In March 2006, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs suing three manufacturers of thiomersal could bypass the Court of Federal Claims (the 'vaccine court') and litigate in either state or federal court utilizing the ordinary channels for recovery in tort (Holder v. Abbott Laboratories Inc., 444 F.3d 383). The ruling is significant, since this is the first instance where a federal appeals court has held that a suit of this nature may bypass the 'vaccine court'. The 5th circuit court reached its conclusion by first looking to the statutory intent of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, and determining that the intent of the statute was to protect the financial stability of vaccine manufacturers. In this case, thimerosal is not a vaccine, but a preservative and as such, the manufacturers of this preservative cannot share in the protection afforded by the no-fault regime ushered in by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.
Currently, nearly 5,000 families are attempting to demonstrate that vaccines can cause autism, despite the medical and scientific consensus that there is no link between vaccines and the onset of autistic symptoms. With the commencement of hearings in the case of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Case #98-916V), the battle over vaccine injuries moved into the courts. A panel of three 'special masters' heard the first case of the historic Autism Omnibus Proceedings in June 2007, but is not expected to announce any decision for several months.
The lead petitioners, the parents of Michelle Cedillo, asked the court to find that their child's autism was caused by common childhood vaccines. Her parents, Theresa and Michael Cedillo, allege that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative, seriously weakened their daughter's immune system and prevented her body from clearing the measles virus after she was vaccinated at the age of fifteen months.
Special Master George Hastings, Jr., one of the three special masters hearing the case, said "Clearly the story of Michelle's life is a tragic one," while pledging to listen carefully to the evidence presented during the three-week hearing.
The case could pave the way for thousands of autistic children to receive compensation from a government fund set up to help people allegedly injured by the vaccines. If the special masters find for the parents, individual claims will be heard. A flood of successful claims could exhaust the $2 billion fund and could increase the number of children who are not given vaccines and fall sick or die from the diseases they prevent.
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- Doja A, Roberts W (2006). "Immunizations and autism: a review of the literature". Can J Neurol Sci. 33 (4): 341–6. PMID 17168158.
- Taylor B (2006). "Vaccines and the changing epidemiology of autism". Child Care Health Dev. 32 (5): 511–9. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2214.2006.00655.x. PMID 16919130.
- Bridges A (2007-06-12). "Children with autism get day in court". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-10-14. Check date values in:
- Kirby D (2007-06-13). "If parents win in vaccine court, what do we tell the world?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2007-10-14. Check date values in:
- USCourts.gov - 'Vaccine Program/Office of Special Masters: Omnibus Autism Proceeding'