WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will decide whether drugmakers can be sued by parents who claim their children suffered serious health problems from vaccines.
The justices on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from parents in Pittsburgh who want to sue Wyeth over the serious side effects their daughter, then 6 months old, allegedly suffered as a result of the company's diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled against Robalee and Russell Bruesewitz, saying a 1986 federal law bars their claims.
That law set up a special vaccine court to handle disputes as part of its aim of insuring a stable vaccine supply by shielding companies from most lawsuits.
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Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer Inc., prevailed at the appeals court but also joined in asking the court to hear the case, saying it presents an important and recurring legal issue that should be resolved.
Pfizer said in a brief statement that it is pleased the court will hear the Bruesewitz case.
The Obama administration joined the parties in calling for high court review, although the government takes the side of the manufacturers.
Only one state appeals court, the Georgia Supreme Court, has ruled that families can sue in a vaccine case. The vaccine industry has fiercely opposed the Georgia ruling in the case of Marcelo and Carolyn Ferrari. They claim their son suffered neurological damage after receiving vaccine booster shots made by Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline that contained the preservative thimerosal.
The family has since withdrawn its lawsuit, although the Georgia court's opinion remains in force.
According to the Bruesewitz lawsuit, Hannah Bruesewitz was a healthy infant until she received the vaccine in April 1992. Within hours of getting the DPT shot, the third in a series of five, the baby suffered a series of debilitating seizures. Now a teenager, Hannah suffers from residual seizure disorder, the suit says.
The vaccine court earlier rejected the family's claims.
Wyeth lost another high court fight last year over whether federal law barred lawsuits against drugmakers. That case, involving a botched injection, asked whether federal law included an implicit prohibition on the lawsuits. The court said it did not.
In this appeal, however, Congress clearly laid out how claims over vaccines were to be made, and the court has repeatedly ruled against plaintiffs when Congress has explicitly sought to bar law suits.
Other than the Georgia court, state and federal courts have uniformly invoked a provision of the 1986 federal law, which seems to bar most lawsuits against vaccine makers.