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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

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

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.

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.

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