Nora Freeman Engstrom, A Dose of Reality for Specialized Courts: Lessons from the VICP, 163 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1631 (2015).
The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 established the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (“VICP”) as a replacement regime for vaccine-related injuries. The VICP is funded by a seventy-five cent tax on each vaccine dose. Individuals alleging vaccine-related injuries file a petition, which is adjudicated by a special master of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Petitioners may seek damages for, inter alia, health care and rehabilitation costs (past and anticipated), though damages for pain and suffering or death are capped at $250,000. The law provides broad legal immunities for vaccine manufacturers, including preemption of tort claims for design or warning defects. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the preemption provision to include design defects where the vaccine manufacturer failed to incorporate a safer alternative design.
As Engstrom details, “[t]he picture is bleak. The VICP has simply failed to offer compensation as consistently, as quickly, as easily, or as simply as it proponents had predicted.” (P. 1675.) For example, the average vaccine-injury petition takes longer to adjudicate that the average tort claim alleging medical malpractice. The Government Accountability Office has underscored the fact that the expectations of the VICP “have often not been met,” while patient advocacy groups have lambasted the VICP as “a betrayal of the promise that was made to parents about how the compensation program would be implemented.” (Pp. 1675-76.) Even the VICP’s Chief Special Master, who served in that role for over two decades, publicly stated that “litigating causation cases has proven the antithesis of Congress’s desire for the Program.” (P. 1676.) Moreover, due to the structure of the law (particularly, the preemption provisions), in cases where an injury resulted because a vaccine manufacturer failed to use a safer alternative design, the manufacturer “is not in any way affected if a decision is made to compensate the petitioner.” (P. 1671.) Compensation awards are derived entirely from the Vaccine Injury Trust Fund (not from the vaccine manufacturer), and special masters do not have the legal authority to require a new vaccine design.
Replacement regimes like the VICP, Engstrom explains, “are the go-to weapon in serious tort reformers’ collective arsenals.” (Pp. 1640-41.) Such regimes—which jettison tort law in favor of some version of a “no-fault” compensation mechanism—have been proposed for dozens of scenarios, including injuries resulting from medical malpractice, motor vehicles, firearms, lead paint, and nuclear accidents. By closely examining the VICP, Engstrom sounds the alarm bells for specialized courts, particularly specialized health courts. As she highlights, “before the traditional tort system is abandoned . . . there must be substantial grounds to ensure confidence in an alternative institutional mechanism that would serve as its replacement.” (P. 1717.) Engstrom’s arguments are compelling, and must be taken seriously.Read More