The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a closely watched case that could leave vaccine makers more vulnerable to lawsuits by people claiming injuries from adverse reactions to routine shots.

The case was brought by the family of Hannah Bruesewitz, an 18-year-old Pittsburgh woman who has suffered seizures and other developmental problems since receiving a combination DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) shot when she was six months old. Her parents blame the shot, and say that vaccine maker Wyeth knew at the time of a safer way to produce the DTP vaccine but failed to do so. Wyeth denies the claim.

Vaccine makers have enjoyed near immunity from lawsuits since 1986, when Congress passed a law, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, directing injury claims to a special “vaccine court.” There, patients found to have suffered injuries from adverse reactions to vaccine get compensated from a fund financed by a small surcharge on each shot. The law allows claimants to opt out of the vaccine court and sue manufacturers only in limited circumstances.

Suits claiming that a vaccine was defectively designed are specifically barred if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable. In their lawsuit, however, the Bruesewitzes assert that their child’s injuries could have been avoided had Wyeth produced a safer DTP vaccine.

The family originally sought compensation in the vaccine court, but the case was rejected after Hannah’s injuries were removed from a list of those eligible for compensation about a month before her case was heard. They then filed the design defect case that is now before the Supreme Court. A victory there would not mean that Wyeth is liable–only that the family can bring the case to trial.

The National Vaccine Injury Center and more than two dozen other groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the family’s position. The U.S. Solicitor General, the American Academy of Pediatrics and several pharmaceutical companies filed briefs in support of Wyeth and its parent company, Pfizer Inc.

The Bruesewitzes told The New York Times that they weren’t against vaccinations, but were just seeking some assistance for the high cost of their daughter’s care.

“The cost of her care is an ongoing burden,” said Russell Bruesewitz, Hannah’s father.

Lurking in the background are thousands of  autism cases in the vaccine court that could be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. In some cases, compensation has been awarded for children who suffered neurological symptoms common to autistic children, but there has never been a ruling that vaccines caused autism. According to some legal observers, if the Bruesewitz case is allowed to go forward, it could open a new line of attack for claimants in autism cases.

Related Posts:

In Vitriolic Vaccine-Autism Debate, Report Lifts Some of the Fog
U.S. Agrees to Pay $1.5 Million in Landmark Vaccine-Autism Case