- WASHINGTON (Reuters Health)
- Attorneys for the Bush Administration asked a federal court on Monday
to order that documents on hundreds of cases of autism allegedly caused
by childhood vaccines be kept from the public.
- Department of Justice lawyers asked a special master
in the US Court of Federal Claims to seal the documents, arguing that allowing
their automatic disclosure would take away the right of federal agencies
to decide when and how the material should be released.
- Attorneys for the families of hundreds of autistic children
charged that the government was trying to keep the information out of civil
courts, where juries might be convinced to award large judgments against
- The court is currently hearing approximately 1,000 claims
brought by the families of autistic children. The suits charge that the
measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which until recently included a mercury-containing
preservative known as thimerosal, can cause neurological damage leading
- Federal law requires suits against vaccine makers to
go before a special federal "vaccine court" before any civil
lawsuit is allowed. The court was set up by Congress to speed compensation
claims and to help protect vaccine makers from having to pay large punitive
awards decided by juries in state civil courts. Plaintiffs are free to
take their cases to state courts if they lose in the federal vaccine court
or if they don't accept the court's judgment.
- The current 1,000 or so autism cases are unusual for
the court. Because it received so many claims, much of the fact-finding
and evidence-gathering is going on for all of the cases as a block.
- Monday's request by the Bush Administration would prevent
plaintiffs who later go to civil court from using some relevant evidence
generated during the required vaccine court proceedings.
- Plaintiffs' attorneys said that the order amounted to
punishment of the families of injured children because it would require
them to incur the time and expense of regenerating evidence for a civil
- "Wouldn't it be a shame if at the end of the day
our policy would be to compensate lawyers," said Jeff Kim, an attorney
with Gallagher Boland Meiburger & Brosnan. The firm represents about
400 families of autistic children who received the MMR vaccine.
- Kim accused the government of trying to lower "a
shroud of secrecy over these documents" in order to protect vaccine
manufacturers, who he said were "the only entities" that would
benefit if the documents are sealed.
- While federal law clearly seals most documents generated
in individual vaccine cases, it has never been applied to a block proceeding
like the one generating evidence in the autism cases.
- Administration lawyers told Special Master George Hastings
that they requested the seal in order to preserve the legal right of the
Secretary of Health and Human Services to decide when vaccine evidence
can be released to the public.
- Justice Department attorney Vincent Matanoski argued
that to let plaintiffs use the vaccine court evidence in a later civil
suit would confer an advantage on plaintiffs who chose to forgo federal
- "There is no secret here. What the petitioners are
arguing for are enhanced rights in a subsequent civil action," Matanoski
said of the plaintiffs. "They're still going to have unfettered use
within the proceedings."
- Hastings would not say when he would issue a ruling on
whether to seal the court documents, but did say that his decision would
be "very prompt."
- Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited
without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable
for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance