In a building kitty-corner from the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue is a special "vaccines court" which hears cases brought by parents who claim their children have been harmed by routine vaccinations.
The court buffers makers of childhood-disease vaccines from much of the litigation risk that other drugmakers must face. It is an important reason why the vaccine business has been transformed from a low-profit venture in the 1970’s to one of the pharmaceutical industry's most attractive product lines today.
The court operates because of a legal shield known as the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which was put into place in 1986 to encourage the development of vaccines. A spate of lawsuits against vaccine makers in the 1970’s and 1980’s had caused dozens of companies to get out of the business. Now, vaccines are big business. They will generate $21.5 billion in annual sales for their makers by 2012.
Critics of the program say a recent vaccine court ruling that routine childhood immunizations aren't linked to autism underscored the limited recourse families have in claiming injury from vaccines. Many plaintiffs' lawyers would prefer to take their lawsuits directly to civil court.