Judge trims award in Vioxx lawsuit
A judge in a Texas widow’s lawsuit over the Merck & Co. drug Vioxx on Thursday reduced a $32-million jury award to $8.7 million so that it conformed to state law.
A state jury in April found Merck liable for the 2001 death of Leonel Garza, a 71-year-old man who had a fatal heart attack within a month of taking the since-withdrawn painkiller.
After the verdict was issued, the company was ordered to pay the Garza family $7 million in noneconomic compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
But Judge Alex Gabert, in a Rio Grande City courtroom, ordered the punitive damage reduced to conform to a 2003 Texas law that caps punitive damages at twice the amount of economic damages -- lost pay -- and as much as $750,000 on top of noneconomic damages. The final figure also includes interest accrued since the suit was filed.
Because Garza was retired, the jury awarded no economic damages, so Merck was ordered to pay the most the family could receive under state law.
Merck argued during the trial that Garza had a 23-year history of heart disease beginning with a quadruple bypass in 1989 and had taken Vioxx only 17 days.
But Garza’s attorneys said their client had just been told his veins had been cleared and that a stress test showed less than a 2% risk of heart attack within a year.
They touted the verdict as the first case in the country in which a jury found that short-term usage of Vioxx was causative in heart attacks.
Tilden Katz, a spokesman for Merck’s outside legal counsel, said the company was seeking a new trial based on “the undisclosed financial relationship” between the plaintiff and a juror.
Plaintiff attorney Luis Cardenas said the plaintiffs were pleased with the judge’s decision and called Merck’s planned motion for retrial “pretty standard.”
Merck attorneys in September were granted access to bank and cellphone records they said would show an improper financial relationship between juror Jose Manuel Rios and Felicia Garza, the widow.
Rios, who earns $22,000 a year as a school janitor, testified in a post-trial deposition to borrowing as much as $10,000 interest-free from Garza’s widow, Felicia Garza. He said the loans included $2,500 that was paid off just weeks before jury selection in the case.
Merck lawyers requested the deposition in June after a fellow school employee alerted the local attorney in the case to the loans.
Of the thousands of cases filed against Merck, this was the sixth to reach a verdict.
Rio Grande City is within a few miles of the Mexican border and in one of the poorest counties in the nation. The region is known for plaintiff-friendly juries and large judgments.
Merck shares fell 3 cents to $43.27.
Bloomberg News was used in compiling this report.