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Supreme Court Upholds Liability Shield For Vaccine Makers

People who have a beef with vaccines they claim were designed improperly can't sidestep a federal law that protects manufacturers from lawsuits, the Supreme Court has ruled.

In a closely watched case, the high court ruled 6-2 that federal law shields vaccine makers from suits filed in state courts seeking compensation for injuries or deaths due allegedly to avoidable design problems with the vaccines. Instead, the court said, people who claim injuries need to go through a special no-fault federal vaccine court.

The decision affirms the role of the special vaccine court and blunts a threat of lawsuits claiming defective vaccines caused autism in children.

In the case just decided by the Supreme Court, the family's initial claim that the vaccine's faulty design was to blame for a girl's seizures was rejected by the federal vaccine court. The family pursued a product liability case under state law that eventually wound up before the high court.

Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the majority said that was the wrong way to go, concluding the federal vaccine law "preempts all design-defect claims" for people seeking compensation for vaccine side effects.

A leading pediatricians' group hailed the decision. The ruling "protects children by strengthening our national immunization system and ensuring that vaccines will continue to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in this country," said a statement by American Academy of President Dr. O. Marion Burton.

Pfizer's General Counsel Amy Schulman said in a statement that the company is pleased the high court affirmed the ruling of the appeals court in the case.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.