No Mercy for Merck

posted on:
August 19, 2005

author:
Mark Gongloff

A Texas jury dealt a painful blow, finding the drug maker liable for a Vioxx patient’s death and slapping it with $253 million in damages. With about 4,200 more Vioxx lawsuits to go, the verdict was an ominous start for Merck.

In the Texas suit, the first focus on Vioxx’s health risks since its removed from pharmacy shelves last September, the widow of Bob Ernst, a 59-year-old triathlete, argued that Vioxx cause his fatal heart failure in 2001. Merck’s defense was that Mr. Ernst died of arrhythmia not caused by the arthritis-pain drug. Its case seemed reasonably strong; though Vioxx has been shown to cause heart trouble, it has not been shown to cause arrhythmia. And Mr. Ernst had only taken Vioxx for eight months before his death. But a coroner testified that Mr. Ernst arrhythmia could have been caused by a heart attack, shooting a big hole in Merck’s defense. Before the verdict, the Houston Chronicle reported that a dismissed alternate juror in the case, Raul Hernandez, said plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Lanier “put up a pretty good presentation” and that Merck “wasn’t doing the right thing by marketing the drug the way they were.” Mr. Lanier accused Merck of dragging its feet after the Food and Drug Administration told it in late 2001 to put a label on Vioxx warning of potential heart risks. Mr. Lanier said Merck saved some $229 million by waiting months to add the warning label– the exact amount of punitive damages awarded by the jury. Merck said it plans to appeal.

Considering the relative strength of Merck’s case in this lawsuit, the attorneys in the other 4,200 were probably rubbing their hands together with glee today. Andy Birchfield, who represents Vioxx plaintiffs in the first federal trial, scheduled for November, told MSNBC that the Texas verdict “says we can go in and prove that Vioxx caused these injuries.” Estimates of Merck’s potential liability in the case range from $4 billion, or about a third of its total stock-market valuation. Its shares, which dropped 27% on the day it withdrew Vioxx, fell about 8% today. Oppenheimer analyst Scott Henry warned that investors may be overreacting to the verdict, noting that Texas has a history of generosity to plaintiffs. Still, he was keeping his “neutral” rating on Merck’s stock, saying it still had plenty of other headaches, including expiring patents on blockbuster drugs.

September 21, 2005

Human Recourses

Appointments

Nexity Financial Corp. has added Tommy E. Looper, a South Carolina retired banker and banking consultant, to its board. Alabama Chapter of The American Society and Safety Engineers has elected Tim Rogers of BI-LO/Bruno’s Supermarkets as president; Fred Kilgore of Penn National Insurance as vice president; Frank J. Lakotich of O’Neal, Steel Inc. as delegate; John J. Placey of Willis Caroon Corp. as treasurer; and Elizabeth Farrar of Independent Consultant Inc. as secretary. Gibson Vance a shareholder of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis and Miles, PC was elected parliamentarian of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

MOVES

E. Harry Markham has joined Charles & Vinzant Construction Co. LLC as a porject manager, Narkham has been in constrution more than 35 years with about 26 years managing projects. Sirote & Permutee has added James R. “Jim” Sturdivant, a former assistant U.S. attorney and provate practitioner to its litigation section. He will focus on white-collar criminal, investigative and civil matters.

FURTHERMORE

Bama Jammer Promotions of Huntsville was named to the Advertising Specialty Institute’s Multi-Million Dollar Table for the fourth straight year. Winners of the Birmingham Advertising Federation 2005 Peak Awards for Advertising Excellence are Curtis Frost, print account executive-newspaper; Rhonda Smith, print account executive-magazine; John Jeffries, interactive media account executive; Deborah Schrieber Crumpton, sales manager; Roger Ash, direct mail account executive; Alabama Power, advertising client; Amy Kabase, advertising account executive; Lynlee Hudlow, special events public relations specialist; Rebecca Hart, public relations director; Elizabeth Sparkman, Industry Newcomer Award; Erin Leon, traffic manager; David Gibson, interactive programmer; Steva Austill, media buyer-planner; American Printing, printing company; E. Culpepper Clark, communications educator; Davis Denny, communications firm; Keith Williams Mentor Award; George Gaskin, intern; William Harvill, ad man of the year; and Deborah Schreiber Crumpton, ad woman of the year. Birmingham partners of Adams and Reese included in the 205-06 edition of The Best Lawyers in America are Charles C. Pinckney, business litigation; and James E. Simpson, business, personal injury, banking and financial institutions and transactions.

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