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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

What's Really Going On in the Autism-Vaccines Lawsuits

Why does the federal government pay vaccine claims? Aren't vaccine companies responsible?

No medicine is 100% safe, and vaccines are no exception. Vaccines do vastly more good than harm, especially if nearly everyone is vaccinated. But if millions and millions of people are vaccinated, even a vaccine that harms just one person in a million will hurt a certain number of people.

Before 1988, Americans claiming vaccine injury simply sued the vaccine manufacturer. Successful suits in the 1970s and 1980s blamed vaccines for all kinds of unexplained illnesses, such as sudden infant death, mental retardation, and epilepsy. This trend drove all but one maker of the childhood DPT vaccine out of the U.S. market.

To bring drugmakers back into the U.S. market, Congress in 1986 passed the Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which protects vaccine makers against injury lawsuits. To compensate people for injuries from designated vaccines, the law created the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Funded by a surcharge on every dose of covered vaccines, as of May 2008 the VICP fund stands at over $2.7 billion.

Since 1988, there have been 8,313 claims filed, with 956 compensated to the tune of $859 million as of May 2008. Awards vary in size. The highest award paid so far was $9.1 million. Compensation pays for past and future medical expenses, rehabilitation, therapies, special education, equipment, placement, and lost earnings. It also provides up to $250,000 for pain and suffering.

What is the vaccine court?

"Vaccine court" is shorthand for the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Special Masters administer the system, established by law in October 1988, to oversee claims made to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program pays claims in two ways. The first, which is the intended mechanism for paying most claims, is a list of injuries and conditions called the Vaccine Injury Table. If these injuries and conditions begin within a defined period after vaccination, the vaccine is presumed to have caused them.

For these "on-Table" cases, people making claims do not have to prove that the vaccine actually caused the injury. However, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the designated respondent in vaccine-injury claims, may defeat the claim by showing that the injury was most likely to have been caused by something not related to vaccination.

But there's a second way to make a claim. If a person claims injury from a vaccine on the list, but claims either a different medical condition from those listed or a different time frame, that person must establish that the vaccine most likely caused the condition.

These claims proceed much like regular lawsuits. And they result in an extra payment to people who win their cases: attorneys' fees and costs.

These trials are presided over by the Special Masters Office of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims -- the vaccine court.

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