The Vioxx case takes a bad turn when the Texas jury awarded $32 million for the family of a 71-year-old man who had died after consuming the painkiller Vioxx. But this will be greatly reduced by state law. The legal experts say that the verdict is a weak case against Vioxx maker Merck & Co. Inc.
The jury awarded Leonel Garza's family $7 million in compensatory damages for mental anguish and personal loss and $25 million in punitive damages, but the latter will be cut to no more than $750,000 because of a cap imposed by Texas law. Merck immediately said it would appeal the decision. It withdrew the $2.5 billion-a-year drug after it found that the use of Vioxx for more than 18 months doubled the risk of stroke and heart attack. Attorneys for Garza's family said that Vioxx caused blood clots that led to a fatal heart attack. They said Merck lied when it said only long-term use of Vioxx presented health dangers and accused the company of keeping the drug on the market long after learning of its risks because the New Jersey-based company needed the sales.
This led to the discovery that short-term use of Vioxx as a causative of heart attacks. Merck lawyers blamed Garza's death on heart disease that had plagued him since 1978. Merck attorney Richard Josephson said medical records indicate he may have taken Vioxx for only a week and stopped the medicine nearly three weeks before his death which shows that Vioxx was not involved in any way in Leonel Garza's death. But Kenneth Frazier, senior vice president and general counsel, told a conference call after the verdict that the company would fight each case and settle none.
Merck last year spent $285 million on legal fees related to Vioxx, and said its reserve fund for future litigation stood at $685 million at the end of 2005. Wall Street is watching the Vioxx trials closely for clues about how much the Vioxx issue ultimately will cost Merck. Shares of Merck closed down 26 cents at $34.74 on the New York Stock Exchange.