Merck found liable in Texas Vioxx case
Drugmaker hit with $32 million in damages in case involving 71-year-old man.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - A jury in a Texas border town found the drug maker Merck liable Friday in the death of a former Vioxx patient.
The company's stock price slipped 0.7 percent in NYSE trading Friday.
The jury in Rio Grande City held Merck (Research) responsible for $32 million in damages, according to a clerk at the 229th Judicial District Court of Texas. The damages included $25 million in punitive and $7 million in compensatory damages.
The family of Leonel Garza, 71, sued Merck and blames Vioxx for Garza's fatal heart attack in 2001.
Merck said it would appeal the verdict, adding that Texas law caps the damages at $750,000.
"We continue to push these cases because we know that Merck acted responsibly in studying Vioxx and releasing data, " said Kenneth Frazier, senior vice president and general counsel for Merck, in a news conference.
"There is no reliable evidence that Vioxx caused Mr. Garza's unfortunate heart attack," added Frazier, who referred to Starr County, where the trial was held, as a "plaintiff's paradise."
Richard Josephson, outside counsel for Merck, said he was confident that the verdict "would be thrown out" following Merck's appeal.
Plaintiff lawyer Joe Escobedo told CNNMoney.com that the case is significant because Garza took Vioxx for less than one month, while Merck has been arguing that health risks emerge only after 18 months of Vioxx use.
"We hope that this verdict will go a long way in dispelling this 18-month science fiction argument that they used," said Escobedo.
Escobedo also said that the damage cap did not apply to his plaintiff, because Texas law made an exception for elderly individuals. However, in an earlier ruling, State District Judge Alex Gabert stood fast to the damage cap.
Damages in the first Vioxx-related case against Merck were also capped. Last Aug. 22, in Texas Superior Court in Angleton, the widow of a former Vioxx patient who died of a heart attack was awarded $253 million, but Texas state law capped the damages to about one-tenth of that amount.
More than 11,000 lawsuits have been filed against Merck, following the withdrawal of Vioxx, an arthritis painkiller, from the market in 2004 after a study showed it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who took the drug for at least 18 months. In 2003, its last full year on the market, Vioxx sales totaled $2.5 billion.
Merck has vowed to defend all cases one at a time, and has consistently said that its drug never killed anyone.
So far, Merck has lost two cases, won two, and there was a split verdict in another.
To read about the latest Vioxx verdict in New Jersey, click here.
To read about Merck's strong quarterly earnings, click here.