Exploring vaccination injury claims with the Department of Justice

UC Law student brings public health experience to externship at US Department of Justice

University of Cincinnati College of Law student Samantha Rhodes recently completed an externship with the US Department of Justice,  working with claims of damages related to vaccinations.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury act was passed in 1986, in order to ensure availability of vaccines critical to public health. It established a no-fault compensation program for patients who may have suffered side effects from vaccination. This helped shield producers and providers of important vaccines from the expense and time of dealing with litigation, which was causing many businesses to exit the market. Instead of suing their doctor or the manufacturer, patients who feel they have incurred harm sue the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The Office of Vaccine Litigation, in which Rhodes worked, reviews the claims to determine which to settle and which to contest. Based on the medical facts of the case, the claim will either be settled with a payment to the patient, or go on to be argued before a Special Master, who is appointed by a judge and has familiarity with the medical principles and terminology relevant to these cases.

“There are some conditions for which there is good evidence of a causal link back to vaccination. Gulliain-Barre Syndrome, for instance, can sometimes be caused by vaccines for flu, meningitis, or rabies. If the medical history and symptoms are consistent Gulliain-Barre, the government would likely concede,” said Rhodes. “In other cases, a patient with a devastating diagnosis may be looking for answers even though there is no evidence of a link to vaccination. Naturally, the government would contest that claim.”

If the government disputes the claim, a special master will render a decision after reviewing evidence and hearing testimony from experts on both sides.

“I immensely enjoyed my experience there,” said Rhodes. Highlights included hearing a case on appeal at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and attending a lecture on the Supreme Court by Justice Clarence Thomas.  

Rhodes believes her prior experience with healthcare and public service were a good fit for the internship position. Prior to becoming a UC Law student, she worked on vaccination in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer and also has experience with Americorps and Planned Parenthood. Next summer, Rhodes plans on working with the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the US Army.

"Some of the attorneys I met at the Department of Justice had been with JAG previously and strongly recommended it. It's a great experience because they cycle you through the different types of law, so I'm really excited to be part of that," said Rhodes.

Rhodes is one of UC Law's Urban Morgan Fellows. The Urban Morgan Institute is celebrating its 40th year of dedication to human rights in the U.S. and around the world.


Featured image: Jacob Creswick on Unsplash

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