Jurors Discuss Decision in Vioxx Case

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The drugmaker Merck says it will appeal a Texas jury's verdict in a case involving the painkiller Vioxx. Jurors in Angleton, Texas, say the company's own documents prompted their $250 million damage award.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, when you watch television, is your set watching you back?

But first, a jury in Angleton, Texas, has awarded a quarter of a billion dollars to the widow of a man who used Vioxx for eight months, then died in his sleep. Drugmaker Merck withdrew Vioxx last year after a study proved the painkiller caused heart attacks. NPR's Snigdha Prakash talked to jurors after they announced their verdict.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH reporting:

These seven men and five women were the quiet ones. They didn't have strong opinions about Vioxx or drug companies or big damage awards. That's what their jury questionnaires showed and that's why they were picked some six weeks ago from a pool of a hundred potential jurors. Fifty-three-year-old Marcia Robbins went on to become the jury's forewoman.

Ms. RHONDA WADE (Juror): Right.

Ms. MARCIA ROBBINS (Jury Forewoman): When we were first called for jury duty, I didn't have a clue and didn't know really anything about the case.

PRAKASH: By Friday when she handed the verdict to the judge, Robbins, a housewife and mother of two, had developed strong opinions about Vioxx and Merck. She and 41-year-old Rhonda Wade said the jury arrived at its verdict on the strength of the evidence in the case, particularly Merck's own e-mails, letters and profit statements. They said the jurors spent more than 10 hours reading those documents over the last two days.

Ms. ROBBINS: Everyone would have a stack of things, looking at them and passing them to someone else to look at, you know, to try to pick out the important parts. We would read them out loud.

Ms. WADE: We tried to read through as much of it as we could for ourselves, making sure everything was in context.

PRAKASH: Wade said she went into the jury room wanting to believe that Merck had done the right thing. She said she knew the drugmaker had done a lot of good in its hundred-year history. By the end of the deliberations, Wade said she was persuaded that Merck's own documents proved that company executives had known for years that Vioxx was risky but chose not to tell the public. Some jurors, such as Lorraine Bloss(ph), singled out specific documents that influenced their decisions.

Ms. LORRAINE BLOSS (Juror): The primary one that swayed me was the e-mail from Dr. Alise regarding the CV events and CV testing.

PRAKASH: Bloss was referring to an internal e-mail sent in February 1997 by Merck scientist Alise Reicin. In it, Reicin suggested that tests of Vioxx would show that patients who took it had more heart problems. Reicin suggested a solution: to test Vioxx on patients without heart problems. During the trial, Merck frequently invoked the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Vioxx as proof that the drug was safe. Bloss said that defense made sense to her, but in her eyes Merck was still responsible for the death of 59-year-old Robert Ernst. His widow was the plaintiff in this case.

Ms. BLOSS: The FDA approved the drug. It was on the market, you know, so that weighed into my mind, too. It was approved. They did everything they were supposed to do. They ran the tests they were supposed to run, but they could have done more.

PRAKASH: Merck lawyer Ted Meyer said the jury in Angleton got it wrong.

Mr. TED MEYER (Merck Lawyer): We believe that we presented a strong, clear case here that the company acted responsibly every step of the way from researching the drug before it was approved for marketing to continuing relentlessly to research it while it was on the market, disclosing the results of that research, presenting those results to the FDA for inclusion in labeling.

PRAKASH: Merck faces more than 4,000 cases similar to this one. Meyer said Merck will appeal this decision and will defend itself against those other plaintiffs one by one across the country. Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Angleton, Texas.

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