Testimony at Vioxx Trial turns Emotional

posted on:
August 4, 2005

author:
Staff

 The Vioxx trial took an emotional turn Wednesday when Shawna Sherrill, the daughter of Carol Ernst, told the jury that Ms. Ernst had been distraught since the death of her husband, Robert, four years ago. 

“The night Bob died, we lost my mom too,” Ms. Sherrill told the Texas jury of seven men and five women. “She’s very depressed.”

Ms. Sherrill cried repeatedly during her testimony, which lasted about an hour. Some people in the courtroom audience also cried, and the jury appeared to be paying close attention to her. Ms. Ernst is expected to take the stand on Thursday.

Mr. Ernst died in his bed at age 59 in May 2001, after taking the painkiller Vioxx for eight months. His family has sued Merck, the maker of Vioxx, charging that Vioxx caused his death. Merck stopped selling Vioxx in 2004 after a clinical trial linked the drug to heart attacks and strokes.

In the first Vioxx lawsuit to go to trial, lawyers for Merck say that the drug did not cause Mr. Ernst’s death.

Ms. Sherrill said that her mother had endured a difficult life before meeting Mr. Ernst in 1997. After divorcing her first husband about 16 years before, Ms. Ernst raised her four children as a single mother, Ms. Sherrill said. During that period, Ms. Ernst rarely dated, devoting her life to her children, and later earning a college degree.

But when she met Mr. Ernst on a date arranged by another of her daughters, they fell in love almost immediately, Ms. Sherrill said. They married three years later. “She was happy, very happy,” Ms. Sherrill said.

“Had you ever seen her this happy your entire life?” asked Lisa Blue, a lawyer for plaintiffs.

“No,” Ms. Sherrill said. “They were together all the time, doing stuff all the time.”

She added, “He embraced our family and we embraced him,” and then began to cry. Mr. Ernst’s death devastated Ms. Ernst and she remains severely depressed, Ms. Sherrill said. “It’s just hard. Every day is hard.”

When Ms. Blue asked, “How do you think the death of Bob has changed your mother?” Ms. Sherrill sobbed for several seconds.

Under cross-examination by Gerry Lowry, a lawyer for Merck, Ms. Sherrill said that Ms. Ernst still enjoyed playing with her grandchildren and had a close relationship with her children. But she said those activities had not helped Ms. Ernst recover.

In other testimony, both sides played portions of a videotaped deposition of Dr. Brent Wallace, Mr. Ernst’s doctor. Under defense questioning, Dr. Wallace said that many Americans die every year from arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, caused by coronary artery disease.

Mr. Ernst’s death certificate lists an arrhythmia as his cause of death. Lawyers for Merck say that Vioxx has never been shown to cause arrhythmias, and so Vioxx cannot have caused Mr. Ernst’s death.

But W. Mark Lanier , a lawyer for Mr. Ernst’s family, has told the jury that a blood clot caused by Vioxx led to the arrhythmia that killed Mr. Ernst. Even though the autopsy showed no evidence of a blood clot, several witnesses for plaintiffs, including Dr. Maria M. Araneta, the coroner who conducted the autopsy, have backed Mr. Lanier’s theory and said that it was more likely than not that Vioxx caused Mr. Ernst’s death.

Dr. Wallace said he could not offer an opinion on the theory.

In portions of the deposition played by Mr. Lanier, Dr. Wallace said that he was surprised that Merck appeared to have monitored his prescribing patterns very closely and had put him on a “hit list” of doctors who might be persuaded to prescribe more Vioxx.

“They’ve told me they keep track of my prescriptions,” he said. “They didn’t tell me I was on a hit list.”

Dr. Wallace also said he had not known that Merck had paid another doctor $2,500 to give a presentation to him and other doctors about Vioxx and other new painkillers.

The day concluded with testimony from Ken McCoin, a Houston economist who said that Mr. Ernst, who worked at Wal-Mart, was on pace to make $22,000 in 2001, the year he died. Based on Mr. Ernst’s expected future earnings, his prior earnings history and the value of his household chores, Mr. McCoin estimated that the lost economic value of Mr. Ernst’s life was $213,000 to $328,000.

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