Published January 13, 2015
A jury found Merck & Co. (MRK) liable on Wednesday for one of two former Vioxx users' heart attacks in a split verdict that awarded $4.5 million in damages to one of the plaintiffs.
The state jury found the company failed to adequately warn both men about the risk factors linking the now-withdrawn painkiller to heart attacks and strokes, but said the drug was only a factor in one of the men's illnesses.
Jurors ruled that only John McDarby, 77, a retired insurance agent from Park Ridge, should receive compensation.
McDarby was awarded $3 million for pain and suffering and his wife was awarded $1.5 million. He did not immediately comment after the verdict.
The trial also included the case of Thomas Cona, a 60-year-old businessman from Cherry Hill who was stricken on a golf course after what he said was nearly two years of use. The jury said he should receive $45 to compensate him for the cost of his medication. Cona declined comment after the verdict.
A Merck spokesman, Chuck Harrell, called the split verdict a "disappointment" but said "the jury has spoken."
The verdict came after less than two days of deliberations by a jury of six women and two men.
The trial was the first dealing with plaintiffs who blamed illnesses on long-term use of the painkiller.
McDarby, a diabetic who took Vioxx for four years, suffered his heart attack in his living room and broke his hip as a result, triggering a health slide that has left him using a wheelchair and unable to care for himself, according to his attorneys.
Merck shares dropped in after-hours trading Wednesday evening, falling 99 cents, or 2.8 percent. Shares rose 51 cents, or 1.4 percent, in regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange, a day after Merck had raised its forecast for first-quarter profit about 15 percent.
The jury was expected to return to court Thursday to decide whether the company will face punitive damages. The judge told jurors not to comment until after the entire trial ends.
Compensatory damages are given to cover a plaintiff's actual financial losses, such as medical treatment costs and lost income. Punitive damages penalize a defendant for bad conduct.
The verdict capped a monthlong trial in which lawyers for Cona and McDarby laid out now-familiar accusations that Merck rushed the drug to market in a losing battle against competitor Celebrex and actively ignored evidence it was causing cardiovascular complications.
The verdict is the second court loss for Merck, against two victories, one in a retrial.
Like jurors in five Vioxx-related trials before it, the jury saw dozens of e-mails, internal Merck documents and safety study reports and heard live testimony from a parade of cardiology experts, academics and Merck executives.
Plaintiffs lawyers said Cona and McDarby wouldn't have been taking the drug for their arthritis pain if Merck — faced with clinical studies suggesting Vioxx was causing heart attacks and strokes — had not persuaded the Food and Drug Administration to dilute a new label warning in April 2002.
Merck said it thoroughly tested the drug before introducing Vioxx in 1999. It was a huge hit with older consumers because of its efficiency as a pain reliever and its lack of gastrointestinal side effects that were typical of some arthritis pain relievers.
At its peak, it sold $2.5 billion in 2003.
But Merck ultimately pulled it from the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed that people who took it longer than 18 months faced twice the risk of suffering heart attacks and strokes.
The company now faces about 9,650 suits in state and federal courts over Vioxx.
It was the second Vioxx trial in New Jersey, where more than 5,000 suits are pending — all before state Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, whose overloaded docket prompted her to impose time limits on the lawyers arguing the case.
She used chess clocks to keep track in the trial, which was held in a courtroom two blocks from Atlantic City's casino strip.