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Jury Awards Widow $32 Million for Drug Vioxx Death

Jury finds Merck liable for $32 million
Company says law caps award at $750,000

By Val Brickates Kennedy, MarketWatch

BOSTON (MarketWatch) -- A Texas jury has found Merck & Co. liable in the heart attack death of a Vioxx user on Friday, awarding his widow a total of $32 million in damages and marking the second straight loss for the company in the courtroom.

 According to Merck spokeswoman Casey Stavropoulos, the state jury found that Merck

should pay $7 million in compensatory and $25 million in punitive damages to the family of 71-year-old Leonel Garza, who died of a heart attack in April 2001.
Garza reportedly suffered the fatal heart attack after taking Vioxx for about a month.
On a conference call with reporters, Merck general counsel Kenneth Frazier said that Texas law caps punitive damages at $750,000. He added that the Garzas should also not be entitled to compensatory damages as they could not prove any economic losses.
Frazier added that although he was "satisfied" with Merck's courtroom record to date, the company planned to appeal all the verdicts against it.
According to Merck, Garza was an obese, lifelong smoker who had undergone quadruple coronary-bypass surgery in 1985 and had suffered an earlier heart attack in 1981. Merck also claimed that medical records indicated Garza took Vioxx for only about a week.
"There is simply no reliable scientific evidence that Vioxx caused Leonel Garza Sr.'s heart attack," said Richard Josephson of Baker Botts, lead attorney for Merck's defense team in the case, in a statement.
"There was no evidence that Merck acted with gross neglect and under Texas law that means punitive damages should not have been awarded," he added.
Merck pulled Vioxx abruptly from the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed that patients who took the drug for 18 months or longer ran a higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory agent, was used primarily to treat arthritis and injuries.
The company has argued vigorously that Vioxx poses no threat to people who took the drug for less than 18 months, and that it behaved responsibly in its marketing of the drug.
To date, Merck has gone to trial in six of the more than 11,500 state and federal lawsuits that have been filed over Vioxx. It has lost three of those cases, but prevailed in the other three. Most of the state cases have been filed in Texas and Merck's home state of New Jersey.
Some analysts have predicted that Merck's liability exposure could run as high as $20 billion. About 20 million Americans reportedly have taken Vioxx.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey jury found Merck negligent in the heart-attack injury suffered by a former Vioxx user, awarding him $13.5 million. Last summer, another Texas jury awarded the widow of a Vioxx user $253 million. Merck has said it plans to appeal both verdicts, and that the Texas award is also capped by state law.

 Despite the losses, Frazier said that Merck will continue its strategy to defend itself in each case, one by one.

 "These are the early days of the litigation," he added on the conference call. "We're in this for the long haul."