Merck Settlement Widow Believes Justice Was Done

Aug. 20, 2005 — -- The widow of a Texas man who died while taking the painkiller Vioxx believes justice was done in her lawsuit against Merck, the drug's maker, after a jury ordered the company to pay more than $253 million.

"It's my hope that this will make a difference … in the way not only Merck but all of the pharmaceutical companies advertise and provide information to the physicians and to the consumers," the widow, Carol Ernst, said on ABC's "Good Morning America Weekend Edition."

Cap on Damages

Ernst won her lawsuit in Texas Superior Court in Angleton, where a jury blamed Vioxx for the 2001 death of her husband, Robert Ernst, a 59-year-old marathon runner and Wal-Mart worker who was taking the arthritis painkiller at the time of his death.

Ernst died in his sleep in 2001 after taking Vioxx for only eight months. Ernst had been taking the drug to alleviate pain in his hands.

The verdict held Merck liable for the death with jurors voting 10-2 in favor of Ernst, who won't actually walk away with all $253.4 million.

The jury awarded a $24 million penalty to Carol Ernst for mental anguish and loss of companionship and $229 million in punitive damages, plus $450,000 for Robert Ernst's lost pay. Under Texas law, however, punitive damages are capped, meaning Ernst's award will be drastically reduced to approximately $26 million.

The $229 million dollar award was based on "the money Merck made and saved by putting off their product label changes," said Ernst's Houston-based lawyer, Mark Lanier.

Vioxx is believed to increase the risk of heart attack, and the Food and Drug Administration had advised Merck to add a stronger warning label to Vioxx in October 2001. But Merck only did so four months later.

The case focused on whether Vioxx contributed to a heart attack that caused Ernst's death.

Merck's legal battle began in September 2004, when the company pulled the arthritis painkiller off the shelves when participants in a Vioxx study experienced "adverse cardiovascular events" compared to those taking a placebo. Nonetheless, Merck never actually conceded there were health risks.

Lanier said the jury award acts as a message to the drug companies to act responsibly instead of worrying only about their bottom line.

"Put patients first, not profit," Lanier said on "GMA Weekend Edition."

Ernst added, "This was done to make a statement, to let Merck know that they [the jury] didn't take what had happened lightly, that they put responsibility where it belonged."

Ernst hopes that now pharmaceutical companies will reveal all known risks when it comes to drugs so that the decision is in the consumers' hands instead of the drug companies. She said that had they known, her husband would never have taken Vioxx.

Too Much?

Many doctors reacted with horror at the amount of money awarded to Ernst.

Dr. Michael Farkouh, a cardiologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine, told "GMA" why so many of his peers were in shock.

"When we prescribe an FDA-approved drug, we weigh the risks and benefits of that drug in giving it to a patient," he said. "So for us in the medical community, we feel that this also is a judgment of the medical community in some sense."

Merck plans to appeal the judgment. Jonathan Skidmore, a Merck lawyer, said the appeal would center on what he termed "unreliable scientific evidence."

"We don't believe they [the plaintiffs] met their burden of proof," Skidmore told The Associated Press.

Merck has set aside $675 million to fight the lawsuits.

That said, the company's legal troubles aren't about to go away. Some 20 million people used Vioxx until the product was yanked off the shelves, and so far about 4,200 product-liability lawsuits, representing about 7,500 plaintiff groups, have been filed against Merck.