Shalala v. Whitecotton

PETITIONER: Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services
RESPONDENT: Margaret Whitecotton, et al.
LOCATION: Riley Hospital for Children

DOCKET NO.: 94-372
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 514 US 268 (1995)
ARGUED: Feb 28, 1995
DECIDED: Apr 18, 1995
GRANTED: Oct 31, 1994

ADVOCATES:
Irving L. Gornstein - on behalf of the Petitioner
Robert Thomas Moxley - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

On August 18, 1975, Margaret Whitecotton received her vaccine against diptheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT vaccination) as a four-year old. That evening and the following morning, Margaret suffered seizures that were a symptom of encephalopathy. Her parents filed a claim on her behalf and alleged that the vaccine caused her encephalopathy, a condition that impairs brain function.

In order to prove their claim under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, claimants must meet the requirements of the Vaccine Injury Table, which lists the conditions associated with each vaccine and the timeframe of their expected occurrence. The Special Master, empowered to hear such claims, determined that Margaret’s symptoms indicated encephalopathy, but that she exhibited symptoms of the condition prior to the vaccination, and therefore her symptoms did not fit within the timetable. The Master denied compensation and the Court of Federal Claims affirmed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the decision.

Question

Must a claimant seeking compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act show that the first symptom of an injury began after receiving the vaccination?

Media for Shalala v. Whitecotton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 1995 in Shalala v. Whitecotton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 1995 in Shalala v. Whitecotton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in No. 94-372, Shalala v. Whitecotton will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

Now, this case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

As an infant, the respondent the Margaret Whitecotton experienced symptoms of an injury to the brain shortly after receiving the vaccination.

She subsequently filed for recovery under the National Childhood Vaccine Act, which provides that a claimant establishes a prima facie entitlement to compensation, when she shows that the first symptom of certain injuries occurred within a specified time period after vaccination.

The Special Master denied respondent's claim finding that she had experienced symptoms of her injury prior to receiving her vaccine.

The Court of Federal Claims affirmed, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a claimant makes out a prima facie case whenever she shows that symptoms of her condition occurred within the post vaccination period, identified by the statute, even if there was evidence of her condition before the vaccination.

In a unanimous opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we reverse the judgment of the Federal Circuit and hold it under the plain language of the Act, the demonstration that a claimant experienced symptoms of an injury after receiving the vaccine, while necessary, is insufficient to make out a prima facie case.

The claimant must also show that the symptoms were her first and hence that no evidence of injury appeared before the vaccination.

Justice O'Connor has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Breyer joins.