Vioxx and Merck: The blogosphere responds

As you have heard, Merck loses the first Vioxx case:

A Texas jury on Friday found drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. negligent in the death of a man taking its popular painkiller Vioxx and awarded his widow $253 million in the first of thousands of Vioxx lawsuits to go to trial.

The stunning verdict was certain to be greatly reduced under Texas law, but Merck’s stock fell sharply as investors feared it could set a precedent for more than 4,200 lawsuits charging that the company hid the drug’s’ health risks.
“So, in essence, the jury expropriated Merck’s Vioxx sales from Oct. 2001 through Feb. 2002. Though the verdict seems not to have been structured as a punitive award (Texas has a strict limitation on punitives at twice economic damages and $750,000 above noneconomic awards), it sure sounds like one.

And thousands of other Vioxx suits are pending–for which this expropriative penalty won’t have any preclusive effect.”

Evan Schaeffer’s Legal Underground:
“One important thing to take away from today’s verdict, even though it will presumably be reduced by virtue of the Texas law on punitive damages, is that this was a case perceived to have causation problems that made it virtually unwinnable for the plaintiffs. The verdict is very good news for victims of Vioxx and a terrible omen for Merck.”

Galen’s Log:
“This isn’t about justice. This is about greed. While I doubt the excessive settlement will survive appeal, there will be thousands of such cases coming. Whatever profit Merck mananged from Vioxx, it won’t be enough. Did Merck bring it on to themselves? One should consider that the Vioxx debacle could happen to any and every pharm company. Whatever their sins, none of us will be well served by destroying the pharm industry.

Even the other victims of Vioxx should be angry. The first hand in the cookie jar just took a big handful.”

“Does anyone think that the recent verdict against Merck in the Vioxx debacle will actually change anything? Lawsuits are pending and this $253 million verdict will certainly have repercussions for the next few years. I suppose this is an example of the system responding to the overwhelming influence of Pharma on health care. I guess only time will tell if any longlasting effects will occur.”

Corante – In the Pipeline:
“It shouldn’t be any surprise to find out that I think that this is terrible news. While I think Merck really pushed Vioxx too hard, as have the other companies with COX-2 inhibitors, I don’t see a way to justify that large an award. This might open the door to a number of such awards, and Merck could end up spending its money fighting for its life rather than trying to bring new drugs to market. Enough of these losses, followed by losses on appeal, could sink the company completely.

I know, I know. They should have thought about that before flogging Vioxx to everyone that could bend their finger joints, right, right. But if every new drug we take to market is going to have a reasonable chance of ruining the company, why bother? And I know the answer to that one, too: ‘just make sure they’re safe.’ What tiny words “sure” and “safe” are. You wouldn’t think that they could cause the trouble that they do.”


What do I think? I believe that the science was on Merck’s side. After all, there are many other causes of sudden cardiac death that are unrelated to Vioxx. Only 65 to 70 percent is attributable to heart disease, 10 percent due to structural heart disease, and 15 to 30 percent noncardiac in origin. That leaves a definite possibility that Vioxx was not responsible for Mr. Ernst’s death.

That being said, Merck got killed on trial. Their expert witnesses came off poorly, and the plaintiff’s lawyer skillfully played the emotion card – which certainly trumped science in this case.

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