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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

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

What does this have to do with autism?

Autism is not specifically listed in the VICP's Vaccine Injury Table. That means that all claims that vaccines caused autism must be taken to the Special Masters. Each claimant must prove that vaccination was the likely cause of his or her autism.

As of May 2008, there had been 5,365 autism injury claims with 5,007 still awaiting a decision. Since each and every claim must prove the vaccine was the likely cause of autism, the sheer volume of the cases threatened to overwhelm the court.

So in 2002, the Special Master's office made a deal with lawyers on both sides. Instead of thousands of hearings to determine whether vaccination can be a cause of autism, there would be just three, with three test cases in each hearing.

These hearings are called the Omnibus Autism Proceedings.

How do the Omnibus Autism Proceedings work?

The Omnibus Autism Proceedings will be the final test for three somewhat different theories about how vaccines might cause autism:

  1. The first "theory of causation" is that measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines and vaccines containing thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) can combine to cause autism.
  2. The second theory is that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism.
  3. The third theory is that MMR vaccines, without regard to thimerosal, can cause autism.

Each hearing is comprised of three "test cases" for a total of nine cases (although that may soon change -- see below). Three different Special Masters officiate each case in a set, although all three Special Masters sit in to hear "theory of causation" arguments. Lawyers for the claimants have formed a Petitioners' Steering Committee, which has selected a small group of attorneys to try all of the cases.

The first set of three trials -- testing the theory that the MMR vaccine in combination with thimerosal-containing vaccines causes autism -- took place in June, October, and November 2007. You may not have heard much about them -- this was before the Hannah Poling concession spurred media interest.

But there's another reason you haven't heard much about them. By request of the claimants, the Special Masters have not yet ruled. The Petitioners' Steering Committee lawyers hope to obtain new evidence from sealed records in a U.K. court case in which parents claimed the MMR vaccine damaged their children (that litigation was discontinued by the judge in the British trial).

The next set of three trials, testing the theory that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, began on May 12, 2008. The third test case was withdrawn at the last minute, but the Special Masters have instructed claimants' lawyers to come up with a replacement case by May 2, 2008. The hearings are scheduled to close on May 30.

The third set of trials, testing the theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism, is scheduled for mid-September 2008. However, there is some question as to whether these trials will proceed. Lawyers for the claimants have said they would rely on evidence already presented in the first series of trials, and that they will identify only one test case.

In an April 16, 2008, order, the Special Masters said they would favor the offer by the Petitioners' Steering Committee to have this single case heard by a single Special Master, relying on the causation evidence from the first group of cases. Justice department lawyers representing HHS have agreed to this, so it's likely this will become a single case -- like any other before the vaccine court -- and not a test case.

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