It’s not Easy to Get Vaccine Witnesses for Vaccine Court


“Witnesses For Vaccine Plaintiffs are Stripped of Funding”

- Los Angeles Times -

By Myron Levin

November 29, 2004

The vaccine court can be a hostile place not only for petitioners but for their expert witnesses too.

 Take the case of Dr. Derek Smith. A neurologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Smith had been retained to testify for people with transverse myelitis, a potentially paralyzing neurological disorder.

Smith said he was "highly confident" that the tetanus vaccine could trigger the ailment in certain vulnerable individuals. Officials with the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program strongly disagreed.

Petitioners in vaccine court can have a tough time finding top experts, in part because many doctors are reluctant to say vaccines can cause harm. But Smith had no such qualms.

"He was so smart," said Sylvia Chin-Caplan, a lawyer for dozens of victims of the neurological ailment. "I had somebody who had academic credentials, who did research and had a clinical practice," she said. "Those are the best people you can get."

Then Smith quit.

According to court papers and interviews, Smith decided to bail out after complaints were lodged with his superiors by three other experts with a long history of testifying for the government in vaccine court.

Smith had raised the ire of one of these men -- Dr. Roland Martin, a prominent researcher at the National Institutes of Health. The two had gone head-to-head as opposing witnesses, and Martin claimed that Smith had mischaracterized some of his research.

Early in 2002, Smith was informed by his supervisors, Dr. David Hafler at Harvard and Dr. Howard L. Weiner of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where Smith had his clinical practice, that people they respected told them Smith "was ruining his reputation by his testimony in the vaccine program," according to a document filed in vaccine court.

Wary of antagonizing people who could affect his career, Smith decided to drop out after testifying in one last case, according to Chin-Caplan and other sources.

Although there were no explicit threats, Chin-Caplan said Smith was told in so many words that he was jeopardizing his access to research funding.

His loss "was really heartbreaking," Chin-Caplan said. She also considered it a case of witness tampering.

Smith declined to be interviewed. None of the five other doctors -- his supervisors and the three government witnesses -- would comment.


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