ANGLETON, Texas - Attorneys representing the family of a man who died while on a regimen of the popular arthritis drug Vioxx urged a south Texas jury to be the first to hold maker Merck & Co. accountable for concealing information about the drug's risks.
The price for accountability? $40 million, attorneys said, scribbling in red marker on a courtroom easel. They argued that Carol Ernst is owed compensation for 40 years of loss and suffering multiplied by $1 million - the price Merck spent on Vioxx's launch party in 1999 - in the death of her 59-year-old husband, Robert.
In closing arguments yesterday, the first of 4,200 state and federal cases filed against Merck over the safety of Vioxx boiled down to the question of whether Ernst's use of the drug in the last eight months of his life caused his death and whether Merck was fully forthcoming about Vioxx's risks.
Attorneys for Merck told a jury of seven men and five women that the company was not to blame for Ernst's death. They said the marathoner died from a sudden heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.
Merck pulled the drug off the shelves last fall after a study found it increased the risk of heart attacks and stroke after long-time use. More than 20 million people used Vioxx, generating about $2.5 billion in annual sales for the New Jersey-based company.
The month-long trial in Brazoria County District Court is being watched nationally by consumers, investors and the drug industry, which is under intense pressure to be upfront about marketing of its drugs in the wake of safety concerns about prescription medicines.
Because the Food and Drug Administration, too, has been perceived as lax in monitoring drugs once on the market, Ernst family attorney Mark Lanier said the jury can send the world a message about drug safety.
Although Merck has vowed it will not settle and will instead fight each case, analysts say verdicts and potential settlements could cost the company between $4 billion and $30 billion.