Verdict of $13.5 Million in Favor of NJ Vioxx® Victim
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ -- April 14, 2006 -- Merck, the manufacturer of the painkiller Vioxx®, failed to warn patients and doctors that the drug increased the risk of heart attacks, according to a New Jersey jury. After deciding that the company misrepresented the drug's serious side effects, the jury awarded $9 million in punitive damages to Irma McDarby and her husband, John McDarby, a diabetic who suffered a heart attack after using Vioxx® for four years. The punitive damages were in addition to $4.5 million in compensatory damages, bringing the total verdict amount to $13.5 million.
In August of last year, a Texas jury awarded $253.5 million to the wife of Robert Ernst, an active 59-year old man who died after taking Vioxx®. The Texas case is one of about 9,600 Vioxx® lawsuits filed against Merck as of the end of last year (New York Times, April 5, 2006). By other estimates, the number of cases filed against Merck involving Vioxx® now approaches 10,000.
Vioxx®'s Shady Past
Nationwide, over 20 million people took Vioxx® from 1999, when it was first approved, until it was withdrawn from the market in 2004. Merck has been accused of running an aggressive advertising campaign to promote Vioxx® during that time, while knowing about the medication's life-threatening side effects. Some of these charges came to light at a Congressional hearing last May, and were based on internal Merck documents (see Vioxx® Risks Were Downplayed by Merck Sales Force).
In 1999, Merck began a large study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis to check them for stomach bleeding linked to the use of certain painkillers (the Vioxx® Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research or VIGOR report). One group took Vioxx®; the other group used naproxen, an older and more traditional pain medicine. None of the patients had a history of heart disease. However, those taking Vioxx® increased their chances of heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots.
The researchers neglected to report that 20 rather than 17 patients suffered heart attacks while taking Vioxx® in that study, the New England Journal of Medicine has charged (Editorial, December 8, 2005). Because of that omission, the differences in heart attack risks between patients taking naproxen and those taking Vioxx® appeared to be less dramatic, according to the Journal, which is now concerned about "the integrity of the data." When the three additional heart attacks are taken into account, patients using Vioxx® were five times more likely to have heart attacks than were those using naproxen. (See Merck Failed to Disclose Heart Attack Data About Vioxx®).
How Vioxx® Works
Vioxx® (rofecoxib) is a NSAID or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a classification that includes common aspirin and other more traditional painkillers. It blocks cyclooxygenase, an enzyme needed for the production of prostaglandins, which can cause inflammation and pain. Vioxx® interferes with the form of cyclooxygenase known as COX-2, and is therefore referred to as a COX-2 inhibitor.
Bextra® and Celebrex® are two other COX-2 inhibitors. Bextra® was recalled in April, 2005 because it increased heart attack risk as well as the likelihood of severe skin allergies in some patients. Celebrex® has also been linked to heart attacks, but remains on the market.