In Carol Ernst’s eyes, two years ago she won a measure of justice.
On Aug. 19, 2005, a Texas jury awarded Mrs. Ernst $253.5 million after concluding that Merck & Company and its painkiller Vioxx had caused the death of her husband, Robert, in 2001. At a news conference after the verdict, Mrs. Ernst said she was pleased that jurors had punished Merck for hiding Vioxx’s heart risks. “This has been a long road,” she said. “I just know that it was a road that I had to run and I had to finish.”
But her comfort was premature. Merck, the third-largest American drug maker, appealed the verdict — which Texas laws on punitive damages automatically reduced to $26.1 million. Until higher courts rule on the appeal, Merck is not obligated to pay. So Mrs. Ernst, 62, has yet to receive any money.
In fact, none of the 45,000 people who have sued Merck, contending that they or their loved ones suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking Vioxx, have received payments from the company. The lawsuits continue, for now in a state of legal limbo, with little prospect of resolution.
In combating the litigation, Merck has made an aggressive, and so far successful, bet that forcing plaintiffs to trial will reduce the number of Vioxx lawsuits and, ultimately, its liability.