Merck Found Liable In $250 Million Lawsuit

On August 19, a Texas jury found Merck liable for the death of Robert C. Ernst. Mr. Ernst died in 2001 after taking the painkiller rofecoxib (Vioxx®) for eight months. The jury awarded $253.5 million to his widow. The huge award will probably be reduced to $26.1 million because of a Texas law capping punitive damages.

During the six-week trial, jurors were reported to have concluded, from the testimony and documents presented, that Merck had been aware of the drug’s potential heart risks but had hidden those risks from patients. However, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, the jury might have been duped by a questionable scientific theory introduced by the plaintiff’s attorney.

The theoretical sequence of events that he “concocted” (in an effort to link the drug to the death, namely a blood clot leading to a heart attack and then to a fatal arrhythmia) was contrary to the autopsy findings. The pathologist found no blood clot and no heart muscle damage from a heart attack when Mr. Ernst died: she had attributed the death to arrhythmia. No studies have linked this drug to arrhythmia.

Some experts are calling for experienced medical court judges to help juries understand the technical issues and reach a fair verdict, and they have stated that blaming the death on this drug is “far-fetched.” Juries do not understand medical information up to 80% of the time, according to the Harvard Medical Practice Study of Litigation in New York state.

Time will tell whether the COX-2s can bounce back. Sales of generic celecoxib (Celebrex canadian, Pfizer), the only COX-2 remaining in the U.S. market, have already rebounded. Some physicians still consider these agents to be safer anti-inflammatories for the stomach than conventional painkillers such as aspirin.