Dismissal of Vaccine Case Upheld

It is not unusual to hear in the news about large lawsuits being filed against corporations alleging injury from defective products. In recent years there have been a number of suits, for instance, against the manufacturers or sellers of vaccines for children, alleging injury from something in the product. Maryland’s highest Court recently addressed the dismissal of such a case, which illustrates that the filing of a lawsuit does not mean that the plaintiff bringing suit necessarily prevails.

In Aventis Pasteur, Inc. v. Skevofilax, the Court dealt with a claim filed by the parents of an eight year old boy on his behalf against manufacturers of children’s vaccines and their ingredients. The suit alleged that the child, who was autistic, had been damaged by exposure to thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury used in vaccines allegedly given to the child as an infant. There have been a number of such suits around the country, and the opinion noted that there are lawyers coordinating such lawsuits on a national basis.

The lawsuit also alleged initially that the child had been damaged by toxic emissions from coal burning power plants, but the claims against the plant owners were dismissed early on. The plaintiffs then named a number of expert witnesses on the issue of fault, and also on damages, pursuant to a schedule set by the trial court which is standard practice. Only one of the experts named by the plaintiffs was addressing, however, the issue of specific causation: that is, that exposure by the child to thimerosal was a significant factor in causing the development of his autism. It is clear that for a complex medical question such as whether autism is related to a product, an expert is necessary under the law.

The plaintiffs sought and were given three extensions of time to come up with an opinion from this expert on causation, while the parties moved forward with extensive discovery, including exchange of documents and depositions of witnesses. Ultimately, the one expert on causation withdrew from the case for unspecified reasons, and the parents of the child moved to dismiss the case without prejudice to their refilling it at a later time. They could try to do that because the statute of limitations, the time within which a suit must be filed, for a child’s own claim for injury does not begin to run until he reaches age 18. In the meantime, the defendants filed motions for judgment in their favor based on the information produced in the discovery process.

The trial judge refused to allow dismissal as requested by the plaintiffs, and entered judgment for the defendants. The intermediate appellate court reversed the trial judge, primarily out of concern to protect the legal rights of the minor child. The Court of Appeals disagreed, and reinstated the judgment for the defendants. In so doing, it held that the trial judge had not abused his discretion in deciding that it was unfair in this case to make the defendants face the prospect of another law suit by this family years down the road.

The Court reviewed various factors that go into deciding whether to allow the case to be dismissed with the possibility of being refiled. It relied primarily on the trial judge’s finding that substantial work and cost had already been expended by the defense on the case. Although the judge also held that it was not the fault of the parents or their lawyer that they lost their key expert, under the circumstances the judge was held to have properly acted in finding for the defendants. This illustrates that the mere filing of such a suit does not mean that the person suing can prevail in proving that even the most sympathetic injury is caused by those he seeks to blame.