If a vaccine injures a child, should the parents be allowed to sue in state court? That’s a question lawyers, vaccine makers, parents, and Congress have wrestled over for a quarter century. This week, the United States Supreme Court brought forth a ruling that keeps the status quo: No, you can’t.
The justices, voting 6-2, said a 1986 federal law preempts claims that a drugmaker should have sold a safer formulation of a vaccine. The law, designed to encourage vaccine production by limiting patient suits, channels most complaints into a company- financed no-fault system that offers limited but guaranteed payments for injuries shown to be caused by a product. [Bloomberg]
The case in question, which has been kicking around for nearly two decades, was brought by Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz on behalf of their daughter, Hannah. In 1992 she began experiencing seizures after receiving a diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus shot made by Wyeth [part of Pfizer]. At the time, her parents tried to file a claim with that government-created system.
When a special Vaccine Court within the Court of Federal Claims ruled that her injuries couldn’t be linked with the vaccine, her parents tried to move the case to Pennsylvania state court. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the claim was pre-empted by federal law, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. [Wall Street Journal]
Villagers living in Ecuador’s remote rainforests won a victory in one of the longest-running, most complex environmental lawsuits ever this week. A judge in Ecuador awarded $8.6 billion—with the possibility of another $10 billion or so on top of that—to plaintiffs suing Chevron for polluting the Amazon region during decades of energy exploration. But in a turn of events befitting the tangled web of international environmental law and fights over who should pay for pollution, there’s no guarantee the plaintiffs will actually see that money.
Judge Nicolas Zambrano awarded the $8.6 billion to pay for cleanup and for health care for Ecuadorians made sick by the pollution, plus 10 percent of that total added on top as reparations to the Amazon Defense Coalition. If Chevron doesn’t publicly apologize within 15 days of the ruling—and it isn’t going to—the ruling tacks on another $8.6 billion in punitive damages.
The pollution case itself is full of weird twists and turns. The first thing to know about this mess is that “Chevron” didn’t pollute the region—at least, not under that name.
Chevron does not, in fact, operate in Ecuador today; the American company acquired the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2001. Texaco started oil exploration activities with Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador back in 1964, and for the next three decades, the 47 plaintiffs say, the company contributed to dumping billions of gallons of waste oil in the region, causing loss of livelihood, widespread health problems and up to 1400 deaths. [TIME]
Relations have been more testy than usual between the Environmental Protection Agency and mountaintop removal coal miners since last April, when EPA issued new rules to crack down on the practice. This week the agency went one step further—a step has never taken before. EPA revoked an already-approved permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia.
The decision to revoke the permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce Mine No. 1 in West Virginia’s rural Logan County marks the first time the EPA has withdrawn a water permit for a mining project that had previously been issued. It’s also only the second time in the 39-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the agency has canceled a water permit for a project of any kind after it was issued, according to the agency. [Wall Street Journal]
The mine, located south of the West Virginia capital of Charleston, has been fighting to begin operation for more than a dozen years.
The Obama EPA began looking more closely at the Spruce Mine in September 2009. But debate over the proposed operation dates back to the late 1990s, when then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II issued an injunction that blocked the mine, which then was proposed for more than 3,000 acres. After the Haden ruling, the company reduced the size of its proposal and the operation underwent much more intense scrutiny, in the form of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement by the Corps of Engineers, which approved the new mining configuration in January 2007 [Charleston Gazette].
For several years now, the Environmental Protection Agency has been lurching toward enacting rules to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Yesterday, the first steps of the EPA’s new rules went into effect.
The new regulations come in two parts, the first of which limits the emissions allowed by new cars and light trucks.
The rules apply to 2012 model vehicles, which can be sold starting Sunday. They must now follow toughened CAFE fuel efficiency standards laid out in May. With industry on board—though there’s some grumbling—these steps are relatively uncontroversial. [ScienceNOW]
The second and more contentious part of EPA’s action are new rules for power plants, factories, and refineries. Beginning yesterday (January 2), any new plant that will emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide (or the equivalent) annually will need an EPA permit, as will existing plants that install new capacity that emits 75,000 tons or more. The regulations for all existing plants will follow this July, when those that emit the equivalent of 100,000 annual tons will need permits to do so.
When I attended the University of Nebraska, Martin Gaskell was a professor of astronomy there. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, he was leading candidate to take a position as head of an observatory at the University of Kentucky. Now, Gaskell has a new title: plaintiff.
Gaskell argues that he was passed over for the Kentucky position because of his religious beliefs. The astronomer sued the university, and now a judge has ruled that Gaskell vs. University of Kentucky can go to trial in February.
Both sides agree that Dr. Gaskell, 57, was invited to the university, in Lexington, for a job interview. In his lawsuit, he says that at the end of the interview, Michael Cavagnero, the chairman of the physics and astronomy department, asked about his religious beliefs. “Cavagnero stated that he had personally researched Gaskell’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says. According to Dr. Gaskell, the chairman said Dr. Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern” to the dean. [The New York Times]
The lead-up to the trial has turned up emails that are rather embarrassing to the university, particularly one by staff member Sally A. Shafer to Cavagnero.
“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.” [The New York Times]
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear what could be the most important environmental case it will decide this year: Huge power companies like Xcel Energy and Duke Energy are appealing a ruling by an appeals court that they can be sued under public nuisance law. If that ruling is confirmed at the highest level, it could open the door to a flood of lawsuits claiming the power companies’ greenhouse gas emissions constitute a nuisance to the general public.
This one has been a long time coming. The case, brought by eight states including New York and California plus some environmental groups, dates back to 2004. First a federal judge threw out the states’ claim, essentially saying that emissions should be dealt with in legislative bodies, not courtrooms. Then the appeals court reversed that ruling, recognizing the eight states’ claim that these emissions contribute to global warming and could be considered under public nuisance law, prompting the power companies to balk and appeal.
In their appeal, the companies argue that the states lacked the legal right, or standing, to sue because they can’t show that they were harmed by anything the utilities did or that they would benefit from a ruling against the power companies. “A court is not a regulator and may not enter relief against a particular defendant where the plaintiff’s injury is not traceable to that defendant and where relief against the defendant would not redress that injury,” the companies argued. [Bloomberg]
While a certain bacterium that can thrive in arsenic has dominated the science press this week, the big story in the world at large is on the ongoing WikiLeaks saga. The release of an enormous trove of confidential documents from the U.S. State Department has provoked plenty of fall-out: there’s governmental embarrassment and anger, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now wanted in Sweden on alleged sex crimes. But we’re most interested in how the never-ending story touches several science and tech stories, some of which have unraveled here on 80beats.
Get That DNA
One embarrassing revelation of the leaked diplomatic cables was that American diplomats were supposed to be part spy; they were asked to try to gather genetic material from foreign governmental officials. Once the cables leaked, the State Department couldn’t exactly deny that this happened, but it now says that these suggestions came from intelligence agencies. And relax—the requests were voluntary.
A senior department official said the requests for DNA, iris scans and other biometric data on foreign government and U.N. diplomats came from American “intelligence community managers.” The official said American diplomats were free to ignore the requests and that virtually all do. [Washington Post]
China Source of Google Hack
Early in 2010 we reported on the large cyber-attack against Google. Though rumors swirled, the Chinese government denied its involvement; the country and the search engine giant went through months of tension before arriving at a truce in the summer. According to WikiLeaks, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were directly connected to the hack.
China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country, a Chinese contact told the American Embassy in Beijing in January, one cable reported. The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. [The New York Times]
Anthony Eugene Whitfield is currently serving a 178-year prison sentence for, among other things, knowingly infecting several sexual partners with HIV. But how do you prove that the women in question contracted the virus from him?
To demonstrate Whitfield’s guilt, the prosecution had to show that he had wilfully exposed women to HIV, that his five HIV-positive partners contracted their infections from him. Fortunately, David Hillis from the University of Texas and Michael Metzker from Baylor College of Medicine knew exactly how to do that. They had evolutionary biology on their side.
Hillis and Metzker knew that HIV is a hotbed of evolution. The bodies of HIV carriers produce around a billion new virus particles every day, and their genomes change and shuffle at furious speeds. But when infections pass from one person to another, this viral variety plummets. Thousands of genetically distinct viruses might jump into a new host, but usually, only one of these managed to gain a foothold and set up a new infection. Every time it moves from host to host, HIV passes through a genetic bottleneck and that provides a massive clue about who passed an infection to whom.
For great detail on how the scientists built these HIV trees and used them in the case against Whitfield, as well as what it means for the future of prosecution, read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Genetic Study Shows How HIV Controllers Get Their Groove
80beats: HIV’s Primate Precursor Is Very Old. Why Did It Jump To Humans So Recently?
80beats: Good News: Anti-Microbial Gel Cuts HIV Infection Rates for Women
80beats: New HIV Hope? Researchers Find Natural Antibodies That Thwart the Virus
Image: Scaduto et. al / PNAS
Today, video games have their day in court. The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments of a California law meant to restrict the sale of extremely violent video games to minors, and to punish those who do so by fine.
A 2005 California law prohibits selling or renting such games to minors based on legislative findings that they stimulate “feelings of aggression,” reduce “activity in the frontal lobes of the brain” and promote “violent antisocial or aggressive behavior.” The law never took effect because lower courts found it violated free-expression rights. In a 2009 ruling, a federal appeals court in San Francisco said the state provided no credible research showing that playing violent videogames harmed minors, and found the law was an unconstitutional effort “to control a minor’s thoughts.” [Wall Street Journal]
Despite the fact that this law was stuck down multiple times and so never went into effect—and the fact that the Supreme Court declined to hear related First Amendment cases—the court accepted this one.
When the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules in April attempting to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, you knew it was only a matter of time before the major push-back arrived. With elections looming and politicians looking to score some points at home, that time is now.
Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor of coal-rich West Virginia, says his state will sue the EPA and ask a U.S. District Court to throw out the agency’s strict new guidelines. For Mr. Manchin, the timing is certainly good:
Mr. Manchin is running for the U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, against Republican businessman John Raese, who has pulled ahead in some polls. The EPA’s policies on mining and climate change are controversial in West Virginia, where coal mining is a major industry supporting thousands of jobs. [Wall Street Journal]