Texas – A Texas jury on Friday found that the withdrawn painkiller Vioxx caused the death of 71-year-old Leonel Garza and awarded a total of $32 million in damages to his family.
It was the latest verdict in lawsuits charging that Vioxx maker Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK.N: Quote, Profile, Research) did not disclose for several years that the drug increased the risk of heart attacks.
The jury awarded Garza’s family $7 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages, but the punitive damages will be reduced to no more than $750,000 because of a cap imposed by Texas law.
Merck, which faces about 10,000 Vioxx-related lawsuits, immediately said it would appeal the decision.
Attorneys for Garza’s family had sought more than $1 billion in damages, saying Vioxx had caused blood clots that led to a fatal heart attack, but were pleased with the verdict.
They argued that New Jersey-based Merck knew about the drug’s dangers by 2000, a year after Vioxx hit the market, but hid the truth because the company needed the sales.
Merck withdrew the $2.5 billion-a-year drug in September 2004 after it said a study found that use of Vioxx for more than 18 months doubled the risk of stroke and heart attack.
“This is the first verdict in which short-term use of Vioxx has been found by a jury to be causative of heart attacks. It goes a long way in dispelling this 18-month fiction that Merck has insisted on using in these trials,” said lawyer Joe Escobedo.
Friday was the fifth anniversary of Garza’s death on April 21, 2001. He took Vioxx for less than a month before he died.
Merck lawyers blamed Garza’s death on heart disease that had plagued him since 1978. They said medical records indicate he may have taken Vioxx for only a week and stopped the medicine nearly three weeks before his death.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We thought the facts were overwhelming that Vioxx was not involved in any way in Leonel Garza’s death,” said Merck attorney Richard Josephson.
“I think we’ll be vindicated in post-trial motions or appeal,” he said.
Escobedo had asked the jury to award $22 million in compensatory damages for mental anguish and mental loss and $1 billion punitive damages to punish Merck for wrongful behavior.
The Vioxx trials are being closely watched for clues as to how much the issue ultimately will cost the drug giant.
Previously, Merck had won Vioxx-related three lawsuits and lost two.
Merck has vowed to appeal the lost cases and settle none of the outstanding suits.
Shares of Merck closed down 26 cents at $34.74 on the New York Stock Exchange.