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Parents Suing Under Vaccine Act Barred by Statute of Limitations

Many parents are concerned about the supposed risks between vaccination and autism, but the CDC has stated that the studies have not supported a link between vaccinations and incidence of autism. Because of the rise of litigation in the '70s and '80s with big damage awards, even in the absence of scientific evidence, Congress enacted the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act ("Vaccine Act") to limit liability and address public health concerns.

On May 22, 1996 Kit Carson was born and he received various vaccines during his first year of life. Beginning with his 18-month well check-up, and followed up with his 24-month well check-up, his pediatrician noted speech delay. At his three-year check-up, on May 25, 1999, Kit's doctor noted "severe language delay." Later that year on September 13, 1999, Kit was evaluated for placement in his school district and his language delays noted.

On April 26, 2001 Kit was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and on July 22, 2002, his parents filed a claim under the Vaccine Act.

The Vaccine Act

The CDC states that the Vaccine Act creates a no-fault system for litigating claims related to vaccine injury. Petitioner can make a claim for compensation by showing one of three things: (1) than an injury (on the Vaccine Injury Table) occurred within an "appropriate time interval following immunization;" (2) the vaccine caused the injury; or (3) the condition got worse after the vaccination.

Under the Act, a petition for compensation may not be filed after "36 months after the date of the occurrence of the first symptom or manifestation of onset or of the significant aggravation of such injury."

When Does the Statute of Limitations Begin to Run?

The issue before the court was whether the Chief Special Master, and the Court of Federal Claims, properly dismissed plaintiffs' action as untimely. In reviewing this, the court had to pinpoint the occurrence of the first symptom. Plaintiffs argued that the occurrence of the first symptoms were in September 1999, when the symptoms were first recognized as a social impairment.

The court rejected this argument because the record showed that Kit's pediatrician noted severe language delay on May 25, 1999, and used this date as the first symptom occurrence. The court also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the medical community would not recognize Kit's "speech delay as evidence of vaccine injury" because the clear language of the statute stated "first symptom" not "first diagnosis."

Repercussions

With this decision, the Federal Circuit court further advanced the purpose of the Vaccine Act -- that is, to limit liability. For parents of children with autism, or suspecting their children to have autism, this case is a clear demarcation that the statute of limitations begins to run at the start of the first symptom, not diagnosis.

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