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Jury Rules Against Merck

Aug 19, 2005 | CNN

The story is about as old as medicine itself. A treatment comes along and offers hope, then something goes wrong. For millions of Americans with arthritis, and other chronic pain, Vioxx and drugs like it were a godsend, for drug companies, too, not to mention investors who made a fortune.

Then patients began dying and people began suing. Today in Texas, the first verdict came down, the first of many. Here's CNN's Allan Chernoff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is right. This is right. Amen.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A day of vindication for Carol Ernst, the widow who sued Merck while Vioxx was still on the market.

CAROL ERNST, PLAINTIFF: I just know that it was a road I had to run and I had to finish. And I'm glad it's finished. And I'm glad it ended the way it did.

PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: It sends the message regardless that drug companies must tell us the good, the bad and ugly about their drugs. They cannot hide behind an almighty dollar and profit sign in an effort to get their money in the bank and not tell us the truth about their drugs. That won't be allowed in this country. It's not right.

CHERNOFF: 59-year-old Bob Ernst, a Wal-Mart manager completed a 60-mile bike ride with his wife only eight days before dying in his sleep. Merck attorneys argued, Ernst could not have been a victim of Vioxx. The coroner's report says died of an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, not a heart attack or stroke which studies indicated Vioxx could trigger. But during the trial, the coroner testified Ernst could have had a heart attack that led to the fatal arrhythmia.

MARCIA ROBBINS, JUROR: We looked at all the evidence. We thought about what we had seen, what we had heard and it was just about putting everything all together.

CHERNOFF: Jurors said Merck did a poor job in labeling Vioxx, failing to warn doctors and patients of its potential risk. But Merck maintains it acted responsibly, even telling the Food and Drug Administration of potential cardiac danger before receiving confirmation from clinical trials. Merck says it will appeal.

JONATHAN SKIDMORE, MERK ATTORNEY: There's no reliable scientific evidence in this case that Vioxx had anything to do with Mr. Ernst's tragic death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We believe strongly in our defense on this case. And this case isn't over yet.

CHERNOFF: The jury awarded Carol Ernst $253 million, but Texas law limits punitive damages. And her attorney acknowledged the court will reduce the amount.

It was costly for Merck to pull Vioxx. The drug had sales of more than $2 billion a year. But now, Merck could face a far greater penalty.

The company already is confronting about 4,000 Vioxx lawsuits. Legal experts say many more will now be filed, and Merck's liability could extend well into the billions of dollars.

Allan Chernoff, CNN, New York.

COLLINS: And Marsha Robbins is with us now in Angelton along with fellow juror Rhonda Wade. So glad that you could both be with us tonight. Thank you guys. The verdict today a lot of people wondering what the mood of those deliberations was. Could you tell us a little bit about that, Marcia?

MARSHA ROBBINS, VIOXX JURY FOREWOMAN: The mood of deliberations? I would say pretty much we were very, very busy trying to look at all the evidence that we had to help us to make up our minds to what our verdict was going to be. Everyone was very attentive, very interested. And we had a lot of questions. And a lot of things that need to be answered. And the only way we could do it was to look at the evidence that we had.

COLLINS: How do you feel about it now, after the decision was made?

ROBBINS: I feel like we made the right decision and the only decision we could make.

COLLINS: How long did it take?

ROBBINS: Well, let me see, I think we deliberated all day yesterday, and then today, probably until about 1:00, 1:30, around there.

COLLINS: Rhonda, let me ask you, were you trying to send a message to the drug companies? I mean, so many times we hear about, you know, the little guy winning over the big guy. I mean, this is a big drug company, a lot of money awarded to this victim.

RHONDA WADE, VIOXX JUROR: Our award was based on the fact that once they figured out they had no choice to make the label change, they chose to stall it in order to make as much as $229 million. And we don't want them to stall. We want them to tell us the truth, and be responsible.

COLLINS: Is that what convinced you then, that Vioxx had certainly done wrong in your mind?

WADE: Looking through their evidence, and time after time, you could see where they knew about the CV events and how important it was and they didn't do anything about it. That's what made up my mind.

COLLINS: I said Vioxx, obviously the parent company there Merck. Do you think that company, Merck, possibly underestimated the public sentiment here?

WADE: Yes.

COLLINS: How so?

WADE: I think that the public wants to know the truth, so that they can make up their own mind.

COLLINS: So in your mind, which to you made a greater impression: the problems with Vioxx, the problems with this drug itself, or the fact that Merck knew about them long beforehand?

WADE: Definitely the fact that they knew. That made my final decision. When I started going through the evidence from the defendants, and the plaintiffs, and seeing it time after time in their Merck documents, that's what made up my mind, that they knew, and they didn't do anything about it.

COLLINS: Marsha, let me get back to you for just a moment. Does it bother you, or do you think now, after this first case has been settled, so to speak, that these drugs did help quite a few people? I think that's a fair argument. But now, this drug is no longer available to those same people.

ROBBINS: Let me say I do know that it did help a lot of people, and a lot of people really liked the drug. I think the problem I had was not so much with the drug itself, but with the fact that all the information wasn't given to the people, so that they could make an educated decision on whether or not it was worth the risk for them to take that drug.

COLLINS: Did you think about your own health care? Or any of the drugs that you may have taken through your life as you were going through this decision-making process?

ROBBINS: Of course. I thought about that perhaps I need to be more careful, and try to learn more about the things that medications that I do take or would take.

COLLINS: I'm sure that's what a lot of people are thinking tonight. That verdict once again coming down 10-2 in favor of the victim. Thanks so much, ladies, for being with us tonight. Marsha Robbins and Rhonda Wade, appreciate your time. WADE: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thank you.


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