The family of the deceased at the center of the first federal Vioxx trial, suffered at least $402,373 in economic losses when he died, according to a witness that testified Friday.
Economist Frederick Raffa said he reached the figure by combining estimates of how much Richard “Dicky” Irvin would have earned to support his family and the value of services he provided around the house. Such figures are important because they are a factor in determining compensatory damages if the plaintiff wins the case. Pain and suffering also play a role in the award.
Irvin’s widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, is suing Merck & Co. because she believes Vioxx triggered the fatal heart attack her husband suffered in May 2001. The 53-year old manager of a seafood distributor had been taking the pain reliever for about a month to alleviate back pain when his colleagues found him dead at his desk.
Merck removed Vioxx from the market last year after a study showed it doubled patients’ risk of heart attack and strokes after 18 months. The company faces about 7,000 lawsuits and analysts estimate it liability could reach $50 billion.
When Irvin died, he was earning almost $26,000 a year, but now his son who holds the same job is earning around $40,000. Based on the $40,000 figure, Raffa said his estimate for total economic losses would have been 60 percent higher.
The $402,373 is based on today’s dollars. Raffa included the couple’s youngest daughter in his estimates because she was only 17 when her father died and was still financially dependent on him.
Ashley Irvin, the youngest child, told jurors she was forced to drop out of college because she couldn’t afford to attend, and her mom didn’t have the money to help out. She also said that when her dad was alive, her parents did help her two older sisters with their college expenses.
But mostly the former cheerleader discussed how much she missed her dad, whom she called a loving, family man who almost always came to watch her perform at football and basketball games. She began crying as she read an essay she wrote about him for a school project. “I know he is still watching, me but I just can’t see him,” she read.
Earlier in the day, witness Wayne Ray reiterated his belief that the drug causes heart attacks regardless of the length of use or size of the dose.
In three hours of cross examination, Merck’s lawyer repeatedly challenged how Ray, who studies the risk and benefits of drugs, examined data to reach his conclusion.
“No matter how you look at it, Vioxx causes higher risk every time,” said Ray, who heads the Pharmaco-Epidemiology department at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Irvin was taking 25 milligrams of Vioxx, and Merck lawyer Phil Beck focused on studies related to that amount. Patients were taking 25 milligrams in the study that led Merck to remove the drug from the market last year.
Ray testified that four out of five epidemiological studies showed that patients taking a 25 milligram dose of Vioxx carried a higher risk of heart attacks.
Beck questioned Ray’ logic in reaching his determination, at one point noting that not all five studies were comparing Vioxx to the same drug. Beck also appeared to suggest Ray was selectively choosing data by highlighting Vioxx in comparison to Celebrex, a similar pain reliever made by Pfizer Inc., in a trial that compared three drugs.
Toward the end of his cross examination, Beck said that if you “compare apples to apples,” four of those epidemiological studies found that there is no greater risk of heart attack for patients using a 25 milligram dose of Vioxx.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Ray. He said that “no matter how you slice the data you see an increase risk of (heart attacks and sudden death) with Vioxx at 25” milligrams.
Epidemiological studies are typically retrospective examinations of data. While they are considered useful because they examine how drugs affect the greater population, blinded, controlled clinical trials in which groups of patients are randomly given either a drug or placebo are considered the gold standard in the pharmaceutical industry.