Inside ‘vaccine court,’ where the US government pays millions to people who say they were harmed by vaccines

Hilary Brueck Mar 16, 2019, 8:30 AM

Vaccine court is housed in a red brick building, two minutes from the White House. 
United States Courts/YouTube
  • Vaccine court in Washington, DC was established in 1988 after a series of unfounded lawsuits threatened to erase the national supply of diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (DPT) vaccines.
  • The court is a no-fault system where injured people can have their cases heard, and everyone’s attorneys are compensated through a special fund. 
  • A 75¢ cent tax on every childhood vaccine and flu shot in the US pays for the program.
  • But it’s extremely difficult to prove that vaccines cause harm. Most successful verdicts in vaccine court are awarded for bad needle jabs that prompt shoulder injuries.
  • Over 80% of vaccine court cases settle without making any scientific conclusions about what caused the injury.

Just a two minute walk from the front door of the White House, on the eastern edge of leafy Lafayette Square, sits the Howard T. Markey National Courts Building, a 9-story red brick structure with dark, narrow windows. Inside, federal judges oversee a mix of cases and appeals involving patent disputes, veteran benefits, oil spills, private claims against the government, and much more.

Eight of those judges belong to the Office of Special Masters, a small unit within the much larger Court of Federal Claims. For more than two decades, these legal minds have applied a meticulous understanding of medical science — including neurology, rheumatology, and pediatrics — to one of the most contentious corners of the legal system.

This is vaccine court, whose staff adjudicate cases brought by individuals who claim vaccines harmed them or their children. The tribunal administers the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which Congress established in 1986 and funded with a 75¢ tax on every childhood vaccine sold in America. Since its inception in 1988, the program has awarded more than $4 billion in damages.

Every year, the court’s special masters receive around 500 petitions for monetary damages. Much like a lawsuit, each petition is a legal accusation from someone who says they’ve been hurt by a prick in the arm or jab in the thigh. For each one, the special masters must answer a medically tricky, but legally straightforward, question: Was the plaintiff injured by a vaccine?

Demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square on February 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In 2016, vaccine court awarded $230 million to patients who said they were wronged by vaccines, and paid over $22 million in attorney fees. (The courts pays those fees even when the petitioner loses their case — a significant deviation from standard practice that experts believe is unique to vaccine court.) The system has existed for more than three decades to serve a single, and very important, purpose: keeping life-saving vaccines on the market. 

“It is a no-fault compensation program designed to encourage vaccination, encourage vaccine manufacturers to continue making vaccines, and to compensate the small but significant number of people who are injured by a vaccine they receive,” the former head of vaccine court, Chief Special Master Denise Vowell, explained in a 2015 video

This doesn’t mean that vaccines are inherently dangerous. More than 80% of the claims the court receives are settled, without concluding that a vaccine caused any injury at all. But the existence of the court, and the history behind its creation, illustrate the complicated realities of modern medicine — and the consequences, positive and negative, of its efforts to eradicate disease.

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