Merck Early Winners in Vioxx Claims, Yet Many Cases Remain


While an Illinois jury recently found that Merck's former painkiller drug Vioxx did not cause a 52-year-old woman's fatal heart attack in the first such personal injury decision in the Midwest, the drug behemoth is certainly not off the hook.

A recent Associated Press story detailed that Merck faces more than 27,000 personal injury lawsuits and another 265 potential class-action lawsuits claiming harm from Vioxx, a drug which netted the company $11 billion from 1999 to 2004. Vioxx was pulled off the market later that year after research found the drug increased the risk factors of heart attacks and strokes.

Already this month, Merck was hit with a $47.5 million Atlantic City, New Jersey Vioxx verdict in favor of an Idaho postal worker who suffered a heart attack in 2001 after taking this drug. A New Jersey Supreme Court panel is also considering whether it should allow health insurers and union health plans to jointly sue Merck for any money they paid for prescriptions of this drug. The AP story indicated that this lawsuit could potentially be worth more than $15 billion. Merck is currently appealing other New Jersey court decisions allowing nationwide class-action lawsuits involving Vioxx to move forward.

So while Merck has won 10 of 15 Vioxx cases thus far, its decision to reserve $1.64 billion in its legal defense fund to fight each case individually should not be applauded. Words like arrogant and irresponsible would rather seem more appropriate.

Examining the Details of this Most Recent Vioxx Personal Injury Verdict

The husband of 52-year-old Patty Schwaller alleged that Vioxx contributed to his wife's fatal heart attack in 2003. Patty Schwaller had taken the drug for nearly 20 months, and her husband Frank claimed in his Illinois personal injury lawsuit that Merck failed to sufficiently warn consumers about the increased risk factors of taking this drug.

Merck lawyers insisted that Schwaller had several risk factors for heart disease before even taking the drug, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and a sedentary lifestyle. Attorneys acknowledged that Patty had struggled with her weight for nearly two decades. Specifically, the 5-foot-2 Schwaller weighed anywhere from 250 to 300 pounds during that time period.

However, Frank Schwaller's attorney vehemently challenged the other half of this Merck argument by saying that Patty did not have any other strokes, heart attacks or symptoms of congestive heart disease prior to her fatal collapse. In fact, attorney Mikal Watts said that Merck pushed people like Patty Schwaller "over the cliff" by failing to adequately study these potential side effects of Vioxx and then downplayed these risks for years when researchers expressed their concern about the drug.

Watts claimed that Merck put profits before consumer safety. Before being pulled from the market in 2004, Vioxx was Merck's number-two, money maker. Watts added that he's all for companies making money but never at the expense of consumers like Patty Schwaller, who he said shouldn't "have died in vain."

Merck's attorney Dan Ball went on the offensive and claimed that Watts was cherry-picking and misinterpreting company emails to attack its reputation. He further said that the company issued warning labels in 1999 and 2002 as a caution for users with cardiovascular risks like hypertension. Ball said that Patty Schwaller's death could better be attributed to her obesity and other health issues. Following two days of deliberation, the Illinois jury sided with Merck & Co. in this specific case.

Stay Updated on the Latest Vioxx Personal Injury Verdicts

While Merck may feel temporarily satisfied about this early victory in Madison County, a traditionally tough judicial area of the country for defendants in personal injury cases, it should not feel safe. There are plenty of people out there with even more valid Vioxx personal injury cases. The company should also know that personal injury attorneys will continue to keep working hard to make sure that this company pays for its irresponsibility and negligent decision to put profits before consumer health.

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