Vioxx-related personal-injury lawsuit
Monday, August 22, 2005 – In the first verdict of a Vioxx-related personal-injury lawsuit, a Texas jury found the drug’s maker, Merck, liable and awarded more than $253 million to the widow of Robert Ernst, who died in 2001 after taking the painkiller and arthritis medicine.
After deliberating for a day and a half, the jury of seven men and five women gave Ernst’s widow, Carol, $24 million for mental anguish and economic losses. Jurors also awarded an additional $229 million in punitive damages after finding that Merck had acted recklessly in selling Vioxx despite having knowledge of the drug’s heart risks.
Under Texas law capping punitive damages, though, that part of the penalty will automatically be limited to $1.65 million, meaning the overall award would not exceed $26.1 million and could be reduced by Texas appellate courts.
But in interviews afterward, jurors said they had made the large punitive award to send a message to Merck and other pharmaceutical companies that drug makers must disclose the risks of their medicines.
“Respect us — that’s the message,” said Derrick Chizer, one of the jurors. “Respect us.”
Ten of the 12 jurors voted for the plaintiff, the minimum required under Texas law to make an award. Judge Ben Hardin of the Texas District Court announced the verdict at the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton, about 40 miles south of downtown Houston, soon after 1:45 p.m. CDT.
When Hardin finished reading, Ernst, her family, and her lawyers erupted in cheers and began to hug one another.
“The justice system in America works, and it works very well,” W. Mark Lanier, the lead lawyer for Ernst, said outside court.
In a news conference after the case, Ernst, 60, said that the case — which began three years ago — had been stressful but that she was pleased with the outcome.
“This has been a long road for me,” she said.
Jonathan Skidmore, a lawyer for Merck, the nation’s third-largest drug maker, said that the company would appeal and that it thought it had properly researched and marketed Vioxx.
“We believe the plaintiff did not meet the standard set by Texas law to prove Vioxx caused Mr. Ernst’s death,” Skidmore said.
With a flood of Vioxx lawsuits soon to reach juries, the verdict may have important implications for Merck and the drug industry, lawyers and analysts said. More than 4,000 Vioxx-related cases have been filed already, and lawyers say they expect that 20,000 to 100,000 will eventually be filed.
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.