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Vioxx Jury Awards $20M to Idaho Couple

Mar 12, 2007 | AP

Merck & Co.'s painkiller Vioxx contributed to an Idaho postal worker's heart attack, a jury in Atlantic City ruled Monday, reversing the verdict in the man's first trial and awarding him and his wife $20 million in damages.

The verdict in the case of Frederick "Mike" Humeston, who was granted a second trial in light of new evidence, means Merck has now won nine cases and lost five in the mushrooming litigation over its former blockbuster arthritis pill.

Humeston, 61, of Boise, Idaho, suffered a heart attack in September 2001, several months before Merck under pressure from federal regulators put a stronger warning about the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx on the drug's detailed package insert.

Humeston, a decorated veteran, had taken Vioxx intermittently for knee pain from a Vietnam War shrapnel wound.

The five-man, three-woman jury ruled on March 2 that Merck was negligent and did not provide adequate warning about those risks before Humeston's heart attack. That set the stage for a second phase of the trial, with the jury last week hearing evidence on whether Vioxx contributed to Humeston's heart attack, entitling him to damages.

The jurors awarded Humeston $18 million in compensatory damages and gave another $2 million to his wife, Mary.

The jury, which deliberated for about five hours over two days, also decided Humeston should be reimbursed for his out-of-pocket costs for Vioxx.

A third phase of the trial will now begin, with jurors considering whether they should assess punitive damages against Merck.

Humeston lost his first trial against the pharmaceutical giant in 2005, but New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee granted him a second trial because new evidence surfaced that short-term Vioxx use could also be risky; Humeston took the drug on and off for about two months. Merck insists Vioxx didn't increase cardiac risks until after 18 months of use, but many doctors say research disproves that.

"It's been a long battle. I'm just happy that justice finally prevailed," said Humeston's lawyer.

Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after its own research showed the drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.

During the eight-week trial, Merck lawyers contended Humeston had several risk factors for heart disease, including being overweight and sedentary and having high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The company's lawyers noted he sometimes took large doses of ibuprofen, another pain reliever linked to heart attack risk.

"We certainly hoped for a different result," Hope Freiwald, a member of Merck's defense team, said in a statement. "The last time a jury had a chance to look at all the evidence at one time, it found that Merck acted appropriately."

Merck's lead attorney, Diane Sullivan, who had won the first Humeston case, did not immediately comment.

In the unusual, two-phase court proceeding in Atlantic City, jurors were initially asked to only consider Merck's conduct in marketing and disclosing risks of Vioxx.

Judge Higbee chose the two-phase arrangement to try to speed up Vioxx trials. She is overseeing all Vioxx lawsuits filed in New Jersey more than half of the roughly 28,000 suits Merck faces. Merck has been fighting the suits one by one.

The jurors ruled on March 2 that Merck was negligent in the case of Humeston, but not in the case of a second plaintiff in the trial, the sister of Brian Hermans of Waupaca, Wis. He died at age 44 after having a heart attack in September 2002, after the stronger warning was issued.

Because the jury found Merck violated New Jersey's consumer fraud law by omitting or giving misleading information about Vioxx in its marketing, the Hermans family is entitled to be reimbursed for three times the amount he spent on Vioxx. His attorney can also be reimbursed for his fees and costs. Higbee is to rule on those issues later.


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