In the first verdict of a Vioxx-related personal-injury lawsuit, a Texas jury found the drug’s maker, Merck, liable and awarded $253.5 million to the widow of Robert Ernst, who died in 2001 after taking the painkiller and arthritis medicine.
After deliberating for a day and a half, the jury of seven men and five women awarded Mr. Ernst’s widow Carol $24.5 million for mental anguish and economic losses. The jury also awarded an additional $229 million in punitive damages after finding that Merck had acted recklessly in selling Vioxx with knowledge of the risks associated with taking the drug. Two jurors dissented from the verdict, which did not have to be unanimous.
Merck plans to appeal the verdict, and such large judgments are typically reduced by higher courts.
Judge Ben Hardin of the Texas District Court announced the verdict on the fourth floor of the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton, about 40 miles south of downtown Houston, shortly after 1:45 p.m. Central Time.
Mrs. Ernst, her family and lawyers erupted in cheers and began to hug each other.
“The justice system in America works and it works very well,” W. Mark Lanier, the lead lawyer for Mrs. Ernst, said.
Jonathan Skidmore, a lawyer for Merck, the nation’s third-largest drug maker, said that the company continued to believe it had properly researched and marketed Vioxx.
“We believe the plaintiff did not meet the standard set by Texas law to prove Vioxx caused Mr. Ernst’s death,” Mr. Skidmore said.
With a flood of Vioxx lawsuits soon to reach juries, the size of the verdict may have important implications for both Merck and the entire drug industry, lawyers and analysts said. More than 4,000 Vioxx-related cases have been filed.
Merck has said it will fight every Vioxx lawsuit in court rather than settle cases and it reiterated that stance in a statement issued after the verdict was announced.
But today’s judgment illustrates the dangers of that strategy, especially because Mr. Ernst’s case had been viewed as relatively weak, lawyers said.
The jury award represents about 1.1 percent of Merck’s 2004 revenue, $22.9 billion, but it accounts for more than a third of the $675 million the drug maker has set aside for its Vioxx liabilities thus far.
The jury’s decision illustrates the legal dangers that drug makers face when they aggressively advertise their medicines to consumers, a practice that spread widely in the late 1990’s.