Naked City

Vioxx maker Merck loses round one

In the first of thousands of Vioxx-related lawsuits pending against drug maker Merck & Co., a jury in Angleton (south of Houston) slapped the pharmaceutical giant with a $253.4 million judgement awarded to widow Carol Ernst, whose husband died from a Vioxx-induced heart attack. Fifty-eight-year-old Robert Ernst, a marathon runner, died suddenly in 2001 after taking Vioxx for hip and hand pain. Carol Ernst argued that Merck's failure to timely disclose its own clinical trial data connecting Vioxx use to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems was the proximate cause of her husband's death. Merck countered that clogged arteries caused Ernst's death, but the jury wasn't buying. On Aug. 19, jurors voted 10-2 in favor of the landmark verdict: $450,000 compensation for Robert Ernst's lost wages, $24 million for his widow's mental anguish and loss of companionship, and a whopping $229 million in punitive damages – punishment, in part, for Merck's decision to delay adding a warning label to the medicine so that the company could avoid losing market share, reports The Dallas Morning News.

Merck has vowed to appeal; even if the verdict is affirmed, the monetary judgement will likely be slashed, thanks to the 2003 passage of the so-called "tort reform" package, which, in part, limits punitive damages to twice the amount of economic damages. Ernst's suit is the first of more than 4,000 pending Vioxx-related suits, which experts estimate could cost Merck nearly $20 billion. Among the pending cases is Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's suit, which seeks compensation for Medicaid costs the state incurred in the wake of Merck's 1999 push to include Vioxx on the state's list of Medicaid-reimbursable drugs.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

VioxxMerck, Merck & Co., Vioxx, Greg Abbott, Carol Ernst, Robert Ernst, tort reform

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