A common vaccine is at the center of a debate taken to the US Supreme Court, that would impact the pharmaceutical industry as charges are made of side effects on childhood development.
The case involves the family of Hannah Bruesewitz, now 18, in a lawsuit against Wyeth in connection with a triple vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) that is routinely given to young children.
The justices have agreed to decide whether the case can proceed despite a law that largely exempts the makers of vaccines from liability, which the industry said was needed to encourage drugmakers to continue producing the products.
The family contends in their lawsuit that Hannah began getting seizures and that her development was affected after she received a third dose of the DTP vaccine in 1992.
Their lawyer David Frederick said the vaccine was pulled off the market in 1998 but that Wyeth continued to use the flawed vaccine for years.
The issue of side effects from vaccines has been controversial. A number of parents contend that some vaccines have led to autism in children although studies show no definitive link.
Kathleen Sullivan, attorney for Wyeth, which is now a unit of Pfizer, told the justices that allowing these kinds of lawsuits would "drive manufacturers out of the market" for vaccines.
She cited the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which states that makers of vaccines cannot be held liable "if the injury and death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and accompanied by proper direction and warnings."
In questioning the attorneys, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that this offered little incentive for a vaccine maker to withdraw a harmful product: "What would be the motivations for a manufacturer to voluntarily remove a drug that could cause harm?" she asked.
The family brought their complaint to a special tribunal set up under the 1986 law to compensate victims of vaccine side effects. After failing to win compensation, they brought the case to a federal court and appellate court, which also rejected their claims.
The newest member of the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, recused herself from the case.