BY OUR PHARMA CORRESPONDENT
19th August, 2005: The Texas jury, which was deliberating Vioxx case held the drug maker Merck responsible for the death of a man and awarded the man’s widow $253.5 million.
Robert C. Ernst was allegedly died on 2001 after consuming Merck’s pain killer pill Vioxx. The jury, after a week long hearing, reached a conclusion that Merck should pay his widow, Carol, $24.5 million for mental anguish and economic losses. Jurors also said she should be awarded an additional $229 million in punitive damages after finding that Merck acted recklessly in selling Vioxx despite having knowledge of the drug's heart risks.
This was the first of a series of lawsuits filed against Merck seeking compensations for using Vioxx. More than 4,000 Vioxx-related cases have already been filed, and another 20,000 to 100,000 more filings are expected, according to lawyers.
State trials are scheduled to begin in the next few months in New Jersey and possibly California and Alabama, with the first federal trial planned for November in New Orleans. Lawyers for both sides say the suits will probably be handled individually rather than as class actions.
Merck shares fell $2.35, or 7.7 percent, to close at $28.06 after the company reiterated that it will fight every Vioxx lawsuit in court rather than settle cases in a statement issued following the verdict. The drop erased about $5 billion from Merck's market capitalization.
Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has not yet set aside any money to cover its Vioxx liabilities, but it has put aside $675 million to cover legal expenses related to its defense.
More than 20 million people had taken Vioxx before the company took the drug off the market last September after a clinical trial indicated that Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks or strokes in patients taking it for longer than 18 months. The pain drug had annual sales of $2.5 billion until it was withdrawn.
But critics had been saying for years that Vioxx posed safety risks. And during the trial, documents and e-mail messages from Merck scientists disclosed discussions of Vioxx's potential heart risks as early as 1997, more than two years before the company began selling the drug.
Similar concerns have shadowed Bextra and Celebrex, two other similar painkillers made by Pfizer. Pfizer, the world's largest drug company, stopped selling Bextra in April; Celebrex remains on the market but now has a prominent warning of its heart dangers.
Merck's defense in the case was centered on the fact that Ernst's autopsy found that he died of an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Clinical trials have not linked Vioxx to arrhythmias. For that reason, many lawyers had predicted Ernest’s lawyer might have a difficult time winning the case. But the lawyer argued that Mr. Ernst's fatal arrhythmia was actually produced by a heart attack that killed him so quickly it did not produce muscle damage visible in the autopsy. It was Vioxx that caused a blood clot that produced the heart attack.
BY OUR PHARMA CORRESPONDENT