In a victory for the drugmaker Merck, an Illinois jury ruled that the painkiller Vioxx was not a cause of the 2003 heart attack that killed an obese woman who suffered from hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Lawyers for Patricia Schwaller's family argued that Vioxx caused the attack, and said Merck didn't provide adequate warning about the drug's risks.
Merck voluntarily pulled Vioxx from the market in the fall of 2004 after a study showed the drug raised the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
A judge denied a request for a class-action suit against Merck, so each of more than 27,000 cases is being tried separately. So far, juries have rendered verdicts in 15 Vioxx cases nationwide. Merck has won 10; the plaintiffs have won five.
In the most recent case, the jury decided Schwaller's other health problems killed her, not the painkiller.
Dan Ball, a Merck lawyer, said, "The unfortunate lady in this case was 5'2", 280 pounds, she had hypertension and diabetes and high cholesterol."
While Merck said it was pleased with the verdict, the jury did not fully exonerate the company's conduct — saying Merck may have known the drug could be dangerous.
Early cases in any jurisdiction are watched carefully — but this week's case was especially noticed because it was the first trial Madison County, Ill., a jurisdiction considered to be very sympathetic to plaintiffs and tough on corporate defendants.
University of California-Berkeley Law Professor Eric Tally said there are also legal consequences from some of the early findings.
"It's possible that a defendant can use some of these early holdings to protect itself against future claims — particularly on factual issues. So for example, the true risk of Vioxx, Merck's own knowledge of that risk, and so forth."
Tally says that while Merck says it will try all 27,000 cases if it has to, that's unlikely.
"We are going to see that some of the precedents from some of these early cases will come some dismissals (and) some settlements, so you aren't going to see 27,000."
But so far, Merck is holding fast to its stated policy: no settlements. It says it has the merits on its side, and the resources and the will to try the cases one by one. As of the end of last year, the company had set aside $858 million for its legal defense fund, and had not set aside any money for claims or settlements.