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Jurors side with Merck in Illinois Vioxx trial

Jurors in the Midwest's first trial over the once-blockbuster painkiller Vioxx on Tuesday cleared the drug's maker in the 2003 deadly heart attack of an obese 52-year-old woman.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jurors sided with Vioxx maker Merck & Co. on Tuesday over claims that its once-blockbuster painkiller was responsible for the 2003 deadly heart attack of an obese 52-year-old woman.

A Madison County court jury found that while Merck knew or should have known that Vioxx may have posed dangers to patients like Patty Schwaller, the company adequately warned doctors and consumers about possible complications from using the drug.

After deliberating roughly six hours over two days, jurors ruled that the painkiller was not a “proximate cause” of the death of Schwaller, who had taken Vioxx for about 20 months.

The company had argued that Schwaller’s obesity and other health issues might have posed risks that better explain the collapse and sudden death of the 5-foot-2 woman who weighed between 250 and 300 pounds.

Schwaller’s husband claimed that Vioxx contributed to his wife’s death and that Merck failed to sufficiently warn consumers that the drug increased the risk of cardiovascular problems.

The victory was Merck’s 10th in 15 cases that have been tried in the mushrooming litigation over the drug Merck pulled off the market in 2004 after its research showed it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It was the first trial in the Midwest and had been conducted in a county known for large awards favoring plaintiffs.

Schwaller’s widower, Frank Schwaller, showed no emotion when the verdict was read. But Dan Ball, an attorney for Merck, mouthed “thank you” several times to the jurors.

“This was a very tragic event,” Ball told reporters afterward. “Everyone agrees with this, but the tragedy was not related in any way to Vioxx.”

Andy Crouppen, one of the attorneys for Schwaller, said the verdict would be appealed.

“It’s not the result we were hoping for or expecting,” Crouppen said. “While I have the utmost respect for the justice system, it’s not fair. We hope that a higher court at a future time will render justice.”

“Clearly something went wrong” with the case, he said.

One juror, Jennifer Fourcault of Granite City, said the fact that there was no autopsy on Patty Schwaller, who was cremated, hampered the search for the truth. But in the end, she said, jurors unanimously concluded that Schwaller’s own cardiac risk factors caused her death.

In a statement, Merck vice president and general counsel Kenneth Frazier said the company was “pleased with the jury’s verdict.”

Despite the favorable verdict, Merck shares fell 24 cents to $43.83 on midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange. They are still trading near the upper end of their 52-week range of $32.75 to $46.55.

During the monthlong trial in this St. Louis suburb, Merck lawyers insisted that Patty Schwaller had several risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and a sedentary lifestyle.

Frank Schwaller’s attorneys pressed that his late wife had no heart attacks, strokes or symptoms of congestive heart disease before her fatal collapse, fueling their belief that Vioxx contributed to her demise.

Mikal Watts, a Schwaller attorney, told jurors Monday that Merck pushed consumers like Patty Schwaller “over the cliff” by failing to adequately study Vioxx’s possible side-effects on people at risk of heart disease. Watts said Merck publicly downplayed worries by outside researchers that Vioxx could put users at greater risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Top Merck executives “kept cutting the data until it told them what they wanted it to say,” Watts insisted.

Watts argued that Merck put profits ahead of patient safety by allegedly rushing Vioxx to market. The drug became the company’s No. 2 drug, generating more than $11 billion in sales from May 1999 through September 2004, according to regulatory filings and other information from the company, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J.

“I’m not against companies making money, but not at the expense of their patients,” Watts told jurors. Patty Schwaller “shall not have died in vain,” Watts argued.

But Merck attorney Ball accused the Schwaller family’s attorney of cherry-picking and misrepresenting Merck e-mails to “assault” the reputation of a company he said was dedicated to making lives better.

Ball said Vioxx labels in 1999 and 2002 — well before Patty Schwaller’s death — urged caution among users with cardiovascular risks including hypertension. He urged jurors to look to Schwaller’s health troubles in deciding what caused her death.

“A person with these kinds of issues sometimes can die early, tragically, and medicine doesn’t have a doggone thing to do with it,” Ball told jurors. “Let’s try not to forget the undisputed fact that most people who took this medicine had no issues at all.”

The trial has been closely watched in Madison County, which has gained national notoriety as a place where lawyers from across the country file cases involving everything from asbestos exposure to medical malpractice, hoping for big payouts.

Merck has been deluged with more than 27,000 personal injury lawsuits and another 265 potential class-action lawsuits alleging harm from Vioxx. The company has reserved $1.64 billion in its Vioxx legal defense fund, saying it plans to fight each lawsuit.

On March 12, jurors in Atlantic City, N.J., found that Vioxx contributed to an Idaho postal worker’s 2001 heart attack, reversing the verdict in the man’s first trial and hitting Merck with a total of $47.5 million in damages.

If the verdict and damage amounts are upheld on appeal, it could be the biggest hit to Merck so far.

In the only Vioxx case with a larger verdict — $51 million awarded last August to Gerald Barnett of Myrtle Beach, S.C. — U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon in New Orleans ordered a new trial on damage award, calling the total “grossly excessive.”

A New Jersey Supreme Court panel also is considering whether to allow health insurers and union health plans to sue Merck jointly to recover money they paid for Vioxx prescriptions — a lawsuit potentially worth more than $15 billion. A New Jersey state judge granted that lawsuit class-action status in mid-2005, and a state appellate court ruled last year that the nationwide suit could go forward. Merck is appealing.