(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider reinstating a $5 million judgment against Westboro Baptist Church members who picketed a Marine’s funeral. It also agreed to decide if drug makers can be held liable for the allegedly damaging side effects of vaccines.
The justices took up Snyder v. Phelps, an appeal filed by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. Albert Snyder accused the Westboro Baptist Church and its founders of defamation, invasion of privacy and other torts for displaying signs that said, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Fag troops” at his son’s funeral.
A jury awarded him $5 million, but the 4th Circuit ruled that the judgment violated the First Amendment’s protections on religious expression. Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church believe that military deaths are God’s way of punishing America and the Army for tolerating homosexuality and other forms of immorality.
The 4th Circuit said the members’ speech is protected, “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words.”
In the vaccine case, the high court will decide if the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act bars parents in Pittsburgh from suing Wyeth over the side effects allegedly caused by its diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.
Robalee and Russell Bruesewitz claimed their daughter developed a seizure disorder after getting the vaccine when she was 6 months old. The 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia dismissed their claims as pre-empted by the Act.
The Act was passed in 1986 to ensure a stable supply of childhood vaccines. Because it shields drug makers from most lawsuits, state and federal courts have typically dismissed liability lawsuits over vaccines. Only the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that a family can sue in a vaccine case, though the family has since withdrawn its lawsuit, possibly to avoid an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling.
These cases are Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, no. 09-152; and Snyder v. Phelps, no. 09-751. Oral arguments will likely take place in the fall.