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Jury Finds Merck Liable in Vioxx Case

April 23, 2006|Lynn Brezosky | Associated Press Writer

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas — A state jury found Merck & Co. liable Friday for the death of a 71-year-old man who had a fatal heart attack within a month of taking its since-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx and ordered the company to pay $32 million. Merck said it would appeal.

The damage award probably will be reduced because of a state law capping punitive damages.

The jury of 10 men and two women deliberated for about seven hours over two days before returning the verdict in favor of the family of Leonel Garza, who had suffered from heart disease for more than 20 years and had taken Vioxx for less than a month.

The company was ordered to pay $7 million in noneconomic compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

But the punitive damage amount is likely to be reduced since state law caps punitive damages at twice the amount of economic damages -- lost pay -- and up to $750,000 on top of noneconomic damages, which are comprised of mental anguish and loss of companionship.

Because Garza was retired, the jury awarded no economic damages. That means the most Garza's family could receive under state law is $7.75 million.

"This is the first case in the country where short-term usage has been found by a jury to be causatory of heart attacks," said plaintiffs' attorney Joe Escobedo. "We hope this will go a long way in dispelling this '18-month' science fiction myth."

Vioxx was found to greatly increase the risk of heart attacks in people who took the painkiller for 18 months or longer.

"I just don't think there's any basis to the verdict that came down today," defense lawyer Richard Josephson said.

Lehman Brothers analyst Tony Butler said he was "a little shocked by the verdict given all of Mr. Garza's health problems." He thinks Merck, from an economic standpoint, is pursing the correct strategy by trying each case individually.

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