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Merck hit with another Vioxx loss

US firm ordered to pay $32m in damages after being found liable for death of 71-year-old man

Merck has been ordered to pay a family $32m in compensatory and punitive damages after a Texas state jury found the US firm liable for the death of a 71-year-old man who suffered a fatal heart attack after taking its COX-2 inhibitor, Vioxx, for less than a month.

The jury of ten men and two women found Merck acted with ìneglectî and said it should pay $25m in punitive damages and $7m in compensatory damages to the family of Leonel Garza, who died in 2001. Under Texas law, the punitive damage award will be automatically limited to $750,000.

The decision marks the company's second multimillion-dollar trial loss over Vioxx in as many weeks, and will come as a severe blow to Merck's insistence that it acted responsibly in developing and marketing the drug.

Even more damaging is the fact that Vioxx has now been ruled to have caused a death even after very short-term usage of the drug.

Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in September 2004 after a study linked it to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who had taken it for 18 months or longer.

Merck said it was ìdisappointedî by the verdict and would appeal, adding that there was no ìreliable scientific evidenceî that Vioxx caused the heart attack of Mr Garza and that ìit is clear that Merck provided to the FDA all required informationî about the drug.

The company said plaintiffs had failed to prove Vioxx was responsible for Mr Garza's heart attack, and they had failed to rule out other plausible causes of his death, including ìa history of heart disease, a previous heart attack, quadruple-bypass surgery, a lifetime cigarette habit, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesityî.

Merck, which is facing some 11,500 lawsuits over Vioxx, has so far lost three and won three cases.

ìWe have strong points to raise on appeal and are hopeful that the appeals process will correct this verdict,î said Kenneth Frazier, senior vice president and general counsel of Merck. ìMerck is in this for the long term. We have the resources and the resolve to address these cases, one by one, over many years.î

Natexis Bleichroeder analyst Paul LeCroy told Bloomberg that Merck is ìgoing to have to face a lot of these trials, and so far their track record has not been that greatî.

Prudential Equity analyst Tim Anderson said the case should have been a ìslam dunkî for Merck bearing in mind Mr Garza's history of heart problems and the fact he took Vioxx for less than a month.

30th September 2008

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