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Court Limits Lawsuits Over Vaccines Parents Must Prove Injury Not Pre-Existing

The Supreme Court made it harder Tuesday for parents who say their children were harmed by vaccines to collect from a federal compensation fund. The ruling might save the government tens of millions of dollars.

The justices ruled unanimously in an Indiana case that a federal law requires proof that children had no symptoms of a particular injury before getting vaccinated.

If such proof isn’t provided, an injured person “does not make out a case for compensation,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.

Peter H. Meyers, a George Washington University law professor who represents families seeking compensation under the federal law, called the decision “disappointing but not a devastating defeat.”

“The silver lining is that the ruling is narrowly focused,” Meyers said. “It leaves open other avenues to successful claims.”

In other decisions, the court:

Held that makers of large trucks can be sued under state law for failing to install anti-lock brakes even though they are not required under current federal safety rules.

The ruling in a Georgia case may not have a long-lasting effect because federal regulators will enforce such a rule starting in 1997.

Struck down as unconstitutional a law Congress enacted to overcome the effects of a 1991 high court ruling and let some defrauded securities investors sue those who sold them the stocks.

Ruled in an Indiana case that a federal law allowing lawsuits against abusive debt collectors applies to lawyers who regularly take people to court to collect consumer debts for clients.

The vaccination-compensation case stems from a program Congress created in 1986 to immunize Americans against infectious diseases and to compensate those who suffered seriously adverse reactions to immunization.

Thousands of such claims were filed shortly after the law was passed, and about 100 new cases are filed each year.

One such claim was filed by the parents of Maggie Whitecotton of Crawfordsville, Ind. She was born in 1975 with a condition known as microcephaly - an abnormally small head.

As described in court documents, Maggie was healthy, developmentally and physically, until she received a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine when 4 months old.

The day after the vaccine was administered, Maggie suffered a series of seizures. She suffered occasional seizures over the next five years, and has been left mentally and physically disabled.

Maggie’s parents, Kay and Michael Whitecotton, applied in 1990 for compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986.

Government officials ruled the Whitecottons were not entitled to compensation because, they said, Maggie’s current disabilities were caused not by the vaccination but by a pre-existing brain disorder.

The Whitecottons won a legal victory last year when a federal appeals court ordered the government to pay them compensation.

But the Supreme Court decision reversed the ruling and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. The ruling does not preclude the Whitecottons from eventually winning compensation.

Justice Department lawyers had argued that the lower court’s ruling “will affect hundreds of pending … cases” that average $1 million. But Meyers said Tuesday’s reversal of the appeals court ruling does not mean all of those cases will result in compensation denials.

“There will be some impact, but today’s ruling is not determinative in all cases,” he said.

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