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Texas Jury Awards $253 Million to Widow of Vioxx User

A Texas jury has found one the world's largest pharmaceutical corporations, Merck, liable for the death of a man who once took the Merck painkiller Vioxx and has awarded the widow of the man more than $253 million in damages. Company lawyers vow to appeal in what could be the start of a decade-long litigation battle.

The case decided Friday in Angleton, Texas, about 70 kilometers south of Houston, was brought to court by Carol Ernst, whose husband, Robert, died from a heart attack in 2001. Robert Ernst, a 59-year-old Walmart produce manager and marathon runner, was taking Vioxx at the time of his death.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September of last year after a study linked the arthritis pain-relieving drug with increased risk of heart attack.

The jury award included compensatory damages as well as punitive damages after determining that the company was guilty of malice. Evidence presented in court showed company officials knew of the risks associated with the drug long before pulling it from the market.

The trial, which began July 14, has been followed closely by lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street investors. The huge award has dire implications for Merck, which faces 4,200 other law suits related to Vioxx, and for other drug companies marketing drugs that have been linked to injury or death.

Merck attorney Jonathan Skidmore, however, says this case is far from over. He says the company will appeal the decision in a higher court.

"Part of the appeal will based on what we believe was unqualified expert testimony allowed here in the case and another point is expert opinions that were not grounded in science, the type of scientific evidence that is required in the state of Texas to prove a causation case, particularly one such as this," he said.

The 10-2 jury decision was a heavy blow for Merck. The price of the company's shares lost more than eight percent in trading Friday, after news of the court action reached Wall Street. Vioxx had been a $2.5 billion product for the company before it was pulled from the market.

In spite of the litigation, some drug experts believe the drug could make a comeback in a limited fashion some day. A federal Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has ruled that the benefits of Vioxx, for many patients, may outweigh the risks. But with some 100,000 deaths that can potentially be tied to the drug, legal experts say it may take ten years or more to resolve all the court challenges facing Merck.