ANGLETON, Texas – A Texas jury found pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. (MRK) liable for the death of a man who took the once-popular painkiller Vioxx (search) in the first of thousands of lawsuits pending across the country. The decision came during the second day of deliberations.
The seven-man, five-woman jury awarded Robert Ernst's widow, Carol, $253.4 million in damages, which is a combination of his lost pay as a Wal-Mart produce manager, mental anguish, loss of companionship and punitive damages. That breaks down to about $229 million in punitive damages, and $24 million in mental anguish and loss of companionship.
In Texas, punitive damages are capped at twice the amount of economic damages — lost pay — and up to $750,000 on top of non-economic damages. Non-economic damages have no limit in Texas except in medical malpractice cases, which doesn't apply to the Ernst case.
The jurors, from a semi-rural county south of Houston, deliberated for 10 1/2 hours over two days before blaming the drug for killing Ernst in his sleep in 2001. Jurors rejected Merck's argument that Ernst died of clogged arteries — rather than a Vioxx-induced heart attack that led to his fatal arrhythmia.
The New Jersey-based company says no link has ever been shown between Vioxx use and irregular heartbeat. "There is no reliable scientific evidence that shows Vioxx causes cardiac arrhythmia, which an autopsy showed was the cause of Mr. Ernst's death," Merck attorney Jonathan Skidmore said.
Ernst was a long distance runner who often competed in marathons.
Plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier said he expects Texas law limiting punitive damages would reduce the $229 million award.
Merck exerted the largest drag on the Dow, which was up about 6 points in late afternoon trading at 10561.14, down from a session high of 10626.26.
Merck shares fell $2.51, or about 8.25 percent, to $27.90 in mid-afternoon trading.
The case drew national attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers and stock analysts. Merck said it plans to appeal.
"Everyone knew this was a hard case going in. The jurisdiction in which it was tried is very plaintiff friendly," said Brett Gallagher, a senior portfolio manager. "It probably was the most expected outcome, and now unfortunately the uncertainty drags on."
The company has vowed to fight the more than 4,200 state and federal Vioxx-related lawsuits pending across the country.