On Friday, a Texas jury found Merck liable for the death of Robert C. Ernst, who died in May 2001 after taking Vioxx, a pain killer made by the company. After two days of deliberations, the jury said that Carol Ernst, Mr. Ernst's widow, should be awarded $ 253.5 million.
Over 5 years, about 20 million people worldwide took Vioxx before Merck stopped selling the drug in September 2004, after a clinical trial found irrefutable evidence that Vioxx had heart risks compared with a placebo.
Mrs. Ernst's lawyers said that Merck was long aware of Vioxx's potential heart risks but hid those risks from patients. Merck's stock price fell almost 8%, although Texas rules on punitive damages will automatically lower the verdict to $26.1 million and Merck has already said it plans to appeal the case.
Texas case means for the thousand of additional Vioxx suits that Merck will face. The answer could determine whether Merck will survive as a strong, independent company or will be crippled for years or even decades. The Texas case was the first Vioxx lawsuit o reach trial, but 4,200 other suits have already been filed, and many are approaching juries.
Friday's verdict in Texas was a disappointment to all of us at Merck because we know we acted responsibly "Merck's general counsel, Kenneth C Frazier said in a statement.
It was found that scientists at Merck were worried about Vioxx's potential cardiovascular risks as early as 1997, two years before Merck began selling the drug. Dr. Alise Reicin, a Merck scientist wrote in a 1997 email message: "C.V. events' is scientific shorthand for cardiovascular problems like strokes or heart attacks. Dr. Jerry Avorn, Professor at Harvard Medical School said he was not surprised that he jury responded as vehemently as it did.