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Jury: Vioxx Maker Owes Heart-Attack Victim $9 Million

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for business news.

(Soundbite of music)

A jury in New Jersey has awarded $9 million in punitive damages to a 77-year-old man who suffered a heart attack after taking the pain killer Vioxx. Merck and Company withdrew the drug from the market in 2004 after a study showed Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks. NPR's Snigdha Prakash joins us now to discuss the new verdict. Good morning.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And this is the same jury that awarded John McDarby and his wife $4 and a half million just last week in compensation for McDarby's heart attack. What did the jury decide today?

PRAKASH: This was a punitive verdict, Renee. The jury found that Merck had knowingly withheld or misrepresented material information from the Food and Drug Administration, and that Merck had shown wanton and willful disregard of another's rights. The $9 million award is not as large as the punitive award in the first Vioxx trial last summer. That award was close to a quarter of a billion dollars, but that was a Texas jury, and this a New Jersey jury. New Jersey, as you know, is home to many pharmaceutical companies.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are also thousands of Vioxx product liability cases. This verdict is important. Why?

PRAKASH: Yes, its significance goes beyond this one case and this one plaintiff. There are almost 10,000 Vioxx cases filed in state and federal courts, and more than half of them, actually, are in this New Jersey state court. Only five of those 10,000 or so cases have come to trial, and even though Merck has won three of those five cases, the analysts and legal observers I've spoken to say this punitive verdict is an ominous sign for Merck, and here's why. The decision was reached by a jury that has shown that it isn't, as one expert put it, interested in sticking it to Merck. If you recall, last week this jury reached verdicts in two Vioxx cases, and both had decided that Merck had failed to warn the plaintiff that Vioxx could be risky for the heart. But the jury compesated only this plaintiff, John McDarby. In the case of the other plaintiff, Thomas Cona, jurors said there just wasn't enough evidence to support a link between Vioxx and his heart attack. So, experts say it's significant that such a deliberative, such a careful jury is also an angry jury. They say Merck should be worried about that, because there are so many Vioxx cases waiting in the wings.

MONTAGNE: Does this increase pressure on Merck to settle, then, with other plaintiffs?

PRAKASH: Well, Renee, we don't know. Merck has said repeatedly that it will defend every case one by one across the country. And, in fact, experts in mass torts--that is, these huge litigations--say that the two sides will settle after a handful of jury verdicts determine the value of these cases. In other words, determine how much Merck should offer, and how much plaintiffs should accept in settlement. They say, however, that this case is bad news for Merck, and good news for the plaintiffs. Not just because of the punitive verdict, but also because the compensation shows that Mercks's defense--that people who suffered heart attacks on Vioxx had them because they were old or overweight, or had clogged juries--clogged arteries, I beg your pardon--isn't gonna fly with juries. This plaintiff, John McDarby, was elderly, male, and diabetic, and yet the jury found that Vioxx contributed to his heart attack.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

PRAKASH: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Snigdha Prakash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Snigdha Prakash
Pieces by National Desk reporter Snigdha Prakash can be heard on NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The majority of Snigdha's past reports have focused on topics related to entrepreneurship, business, banking and the economy.