Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Today's SCOTUS Decision in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth: Preemption of State Tort Claims by National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act
The Supreme Court issued its decision today in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth (covered earlier here), which presents the question “whether a preemption provision enacted in the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (NCVIA) bars state-law design-defect claims against vaccine manufacturers.” Splitting 6-2, the Court held that the claims were preempted. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Breyer joined the majority opinion but wrote a separate concurrence. Justice Kagan took no part in the case.
From Justice Scalia’s majority opinion:
We set forth again the statutory text at issue: “No vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine after October 1, 1988, if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.”
The “even though” clause clarifies the word that precedes it. It delineates the preventative measures that a vaccine manufacturer must have taken for a side-effect to be considered “unavoidable” under the statute. Provided that there was proper manufacture and warning, any remaining side effects, including those resulting from design defects, are deemed to have been unavoidable. State-law design-defect claims are therefore preempted.
If a manufacturer could be held liable for failure to use a different design, the word “unavoidable” would do no work. A side effect of a vaccine could always have been avoidable by use of a differently designed vaccine not containing the harmful element. The language of the provision thus suggests that the design of the vaccine is a given, not subject to question in the tort action. What the statute establishes as a complete defense must be unavoidability (given safe manufacture and warning) with respect to the particular design. Which plainly implies that the design itself is not open to question.
Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, begins:
Vaccine manufacturers have long been subject to a legal duty, rooted in basic principles of products liability law, to improve the designs of their vaccines in light of advances in science and technology. Until today, that duty was enforceable through a traditional state-law tort action for defective design. In holding that §22(b)(1) of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 pre-empts all design defect claims for injuries stemming from vaccines covered under the Act, the Court imposes its own bare policy preference over the considered judgment of Congress. In doing so, the Court excises 13 words from the statutory text, misconstrues the Act’s legislative history, and disturbs the careful balance Congress struck between compensating vaccine-injured children and stabilizing the childhood vaccine market. Its decision leaves a regulatory vacuum in which no one ensures that vaccine manufacturers adequately take account of scientific and technological advancements when designing or distributing their products. Because nothing in the text, structure, or legislative history of the Vaccine Act remotely suggests that Congress intended such a result, I respectfully dissent.
Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion begins:
I join the Court’s judgment and opinion. In my view, the Court has the better of the purely textual argument. But the textual question considered alone is a close one. Hence, like the dissent, I would look to other sources, including legislative history, statutory purpose, and the views of the federal administrative agency, here supported by expert medical opinion. Unlike the dissent, however, I believe these other sources reinforce the Court’s conclusion.