Merck & Co has been defeated in another lawsuit claiming injury by the firm’s withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, raising pressure on the company to settle some of the 11,500 cases it still faces.
A Texas jury awarded the family of Leonel Garza $32 million – which will be reduced under state capping laws – after finding that Vioxx (rofecoxib) caused the death of the 71-year-old, even though Garza only used the painkiller for less than a month to control arthritis symptoms.
This was a shock verdict, as Merck was thought to have a strong case, based on evidence that Vioxx only increases the risk of heart attack and stroke when taken for 18 months or more. Merck pulled the $2.5 billion product off the market in September 2004.
The jury awarded Garza’s family $7 million in compensatory damages and personal loss, and $25 million in punitive damages. Earlier this month, a New Jersey jury awarded $13.5 million in damages against Merck in a case involving a man who took the drug for four years, but dismissed a case brought by another plaintiff who could not prove long-term exposure to the drug.
The loss of a case involving a short-term user of the drug is a setback for Merck, which had argued that the most likely cause of Garza’s heart attack in 2001 was his near 30-year history of heart disease, which included an earlier heart attack in 1981.
“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never stated that it saw any evidence linking short-term use of VIOXX to an increased risk of heart attack,” said the company in a statement.
Observers said that the Rio Grande Valley jurisdiction where the trial was thought is a notoriously difficult one for corporate defendants to fight, and all will rest on how Merck tackles its appeal of the verdict. But the verdict could encourage other plaintiffs to come forward and prompt Merck to settle cases en masse, rather than fighting them one by one as it has done to date.
In a statement, Merck said it will appeal both the compensatory and punitive aspects of the verdict, and noted that Texas law will automatically limit the punitive damage award to $750,000.