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Vioxx Decision Upheld, Award Reduced by Texas Court

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The good news for Felicia Garza: A Texas judge certified the ruling of a state jury that held the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. liable for the Vioxx-related death of her husband. The bad news: The same judge decided that the initial damages awarded–to the tune of $32 million–violated state law and therefore reduced the award considerably, to $8.7 million.

Leonel Garza passed away in 2001 after suffering a heart attack that plaintiffs believe was caused by him taking the controversial painkiller Vioxx. This past April, a Texas jury ruled against Merck and awarded the deceased’s family $32 million in damages: $7 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. However, Judge Alex Gabert ruled that the award violated a 2003 state law that set strict limits on punitive and compensatory damages.

Still, the big news for other Vioxx plaintiffs was that the original ruling was upheld, meaning that the courts accepted the premise that even short-term use of Vioxx may have led to severe side effects including heart attacks and strokes. Well more than 27,000 lawsuits have been brought against Merck, which pulled Vioxx from the shelves in September of 2004 after a study disclosed that long-term use of the drug could double a patient’s risk of a coronary event.

However, a New Orleans federal judge rejected appeals by the plaintiffs to form a class action, saying that each individual case was too distinct to be tried as a group. Merck has emerged victorious in the majority of the cases heard to this point.

A financial relationship between Felicia Garza and one of the jurors in the Texas trial has called the legitimacy of the original verdict into question, and Merck plans to seek a new trial because of the alleged improprieties. The lengthy appeals process may delay payment to the Garzas for many years to come.

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