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Client FAQs – What is a Special Master?

Vaccine injury cases are very challenging. Some of those challenges involve the legal terminology that lawyers use when talking with their clients. Today’s post is about one of those terms: Special Master.

In the course of a vaccine injury case, you will likely hear us refer to your Special Master. In the Vaccine Court Special Masters are similar to judges in a civil court, however they are not judges. They do not make law – they only apply the law. There are eight Special Masters in the Vaccine Court. That number is set by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. They are appointed by the judges in the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington DC. The Office of Special Masters and the Vaccine Court are within the US Court of Federal Claims. Special Masters serve 4-year terms, and most have served multiple consecutive terms.

Special Masters are lawyers, and they preside over your case. They do not wear robes since they are not judges. Ultimately, a Special Master “has two primary functions: case management, which involves overseeing the collection of information and setting time frames for its submission; and decision making, which involves determining the types of proceedings necessary for presenting the relevant evidence and ultimately weighing the evidence in rendering a final, enforceable decision.”[1] Their ultimate decisions on causation, damages and attorney’s fees are reviewable by a Claims Court Judge on a Motion for Review, which is like an appeal. They hold telephonic status conferences with the parties, conduct trials and they can also make decisions on the briefs – meaning without a trial. They have tremendous discretion. They may even conduct their own research, though this is rare. They are not bound by each other’s decisions. Their case assignment is random unless there is a single Special Master assigned to an omnibus proceeding. [NOTE: Occasionally, the OSM creates an omnibus proceeding when a significant number of similar claims are filed to ensure an expedited process where evidence is presented in a single case and applied to all cases. This is called an omnibus proceeding.] We have no control over which Special Master gets assigned unless it is a Table case. The Chief Special Master keeps nearly all of the Table claims since he operates the Special Processing Unit which consists of staff attorneys assigned to move the Chief Special Master’s overwhelming docket. The overwhelming majority of cases filed are Table cases, so the Chief Special Master has the bulk of the nearly 4,000 cases currently on the Vaccine Court’s docket.

Despite some significant differences between Special Masters and judges, from a client’s perspective there is little difference. When we refer to the Special Master in your case, you’ll know it’s the judge.


For more information contact The Law Office of Renée J. Gentry, Esq.

[1] https://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/vaccine-program-readmore

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