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Nation's sixth Vioxx verdict returned

Apr 21, 2006 | Starr County jurors returned a $32 million verdict against Merck & Co. in the nation's sixth Vioxx trial.

After deliberating for more than eight hours, jurors declared Merck liable for the fatal heart attack of Leonel Garza, 71, in 2001. They awarded $25 million in punitive damages and $7 million in actual damages to his widow, Felicia, and the couple's three grown sons.

The family had asked for $1 billion in punitive damages designated as punishment to the company and $22 million for actual damages seen as compensation for economic loss and anguish.

The $25 million is designated to be split 40 percent for the widow and 20 percent each way for the three sons. Felicia Garza is also set to receive $4 million of the actual damages and the three sons are expected to receive $1 million each of the remaining amount.

Immediately after the verdict, Merck officials said they would appeal the ruling and expect that it would be overturned. Even so, they pointed out that punitive damages are capped at $750,000. So the total award is actually no more than $7.7 million the capped punitive damages plus the $7 million in actual damages.

The jury of nine men and two women began deliberations shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday and ended at 5 p.m, before resuming again at 9 a.m. today.

Leonel Garza, of Rio Grande City, died April 21, 2001, after taking Vioxx for a little more than a month. Felicia Garza and her children filed the lawsuit more than a year before studies showed Vioxx could double the risk of heart attacks or strokes when taken for more than 18 months. In response to the studies, Vioxx makers Merck withdrew the drug from the market in 2004.

The trial began Jan. 24 in Judge Alex Gabert’s courtroom, but the judge rotates among several counties and scheduled the trial for only one week at a time each month.

Garza’s is the sixth case against Vioxx to go to a jury, and the third for Merck to lose.

Merck lost its first Vioxx case in August, when a Texas jury awarded $253 million to the widow of 59-year-old marathon runner Robert Ernst, who had taken the drug for eight months.

Earlier this month, a jury in Atlantic City, N.J., awarded $13. 5 million to a 77-year-old heart attack victim who took the drug for four years. But the same jury found Merck was not liable for the heart attack of the case’s other plaintiff, who took the drug for nearly two years.

In the cases Merck was found not liable, each last fall: a New Jersey jury ruled Merck not responsible for the death of postal worker Frederick "Mike" Humeston, who had a heart attack after taking the drug for about two months, and a New Orleans federal court found Merck not responsible for the death of Richard "Dicky" Irvin, who died after taking Vioxx for about a month.

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