June 01, 2006
2 min read

Merck loses third Vioxx lawsuit

Texas jury awards family $32 million in damages, including $25 million in punitive damages.

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A Texas jury ordered Merck & Co., maker of the painkiller Vioxx, to pay $32 million in damages to the family of a man who died of a heart attack. The plaintiffs alleged that Vioxx caused Leonel Garza, 71, to suffer a fatal heart attack in 2001.

The late April jury award was Merck’s third loss in six lawsuits to date. The New Jersey-based company currently faces more than 11,000 lawsuits, according to Medical News Today.

Stuart Hirsch, MD, editor of the Health Policy, Patient and Practice Issues section of the Orthopedics Today Editorial Board, commented on how litigation may affect plaintiffs and defendants in Vioxx cases.

“To mount an offense against a company like Merck may require a law firm to spend over $1 million,” Hirsch told Orthopedics Today. Some law firms sell “packages” designed to help small law firms mount challenges against large companies like Merck. These “packages” contain information that the firm's personnel would have to research, he noted.

Real-life ramifications

Legal issues aside, the Texas case may have practical implications for Merck, Hirsch said.

“A lawsuit of this seriousness and this size has to mean that Merck is now spending its energies, its finances and its leadership talent,” he said. “It’s time and energy it is now invested in the legal arena rather than on creating new medications and doing research. ... My sense is that the next several cases will probably create a trend. If on a regular basis Merck is not winning cases against it, they need to create a different strategy.”

Vioxx received FDA approval and entered the market in 1999. Merck recalled Vioxx in 2004 after a study showed the drug doubled patients’ heart attack and stroke risks after at least 18 months’ use.

In March, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that a nationwide class-action lawsuit against Merck & Co. over the painkiller Vioxx should proceed. An appeals court upheld a superior court ruling that state law applies to all plaintiffs. It also backed the judge’s opinion that combining claims from health plans is a better way to settle suits than trying them individually.

A New Jersey jury ruled against Merck in early April and awarded $13.5 million in damages.

A federal jury in New Orleans ruled in favor of Merck in February, ending the first federal Vioxx trial. Last December, a trial in Houston ended in a deadlock.

A New Jersey state jury ruled in Merck’s favor last November. In August, a Texas jury awarded $253 million to the family of a man who died after taking Vioxx for eight months.