ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Jurors in Texas have awarded a quarter of a billion dollars in damages to the widow of a man who died after taking the painkiller Vioxx. The verdict was announced this afternoon after 10 hours of deliberations. Afterwards, Mark Lanier, the widow's lawyer, addressed reporters.
Mr. MARK LANIER (Attorney): The truth is the truth is the truth. And this jury saw the truth in black and white. The documents read very clear, and it just feels really good to know that our system works in America.
SIEGEL: This was the first of thousands of suits filed against the maker of Vioxx, Merck & Company. Merck's stock dropped 8 percent after today's verdict was announced. NPR's Snigdha Prakash was in the courtroom in Angleton, Texas, and she is with us now.
Snigdha, what was the courtroom like when the jury's decision was made public?
SNIGDHA PRAKASH reporting:
Well, Robert, the courtroom was quiet and very, very tense. The verdict was announced less than an hour after lunch. Judge Ben Hardin brought the jurors in. He confirmed that there were 10 signatures on the jury form. He read the answers to each of the seven questions. Within about 30 seconds or so it became clear that the plaintiffs had won. Carol Ernst, the plaintiff, started crying. Some of her lawyers were crying, and her three daughters let out a huge whoop.
SIEGEL: Now just what did the jury decide that Merck was liable for?
PRAKASH: Robert, as you know, Vioxx was pulled from the market last year by the drugmaker voluntarily after a study showed that the drug caused heart attacks. This case involves a man, Robert Ernst, who died in 2001 well before Vioxx was pulled. And the jury found today that even back then Merck knew about Vioxx's risks, but it hid those risks from doctors and from patients, including from Ernst and his doctor. They found there was a design defect in Vioxx, and they found that the drug company had behaved negligently and maliciously. That's a legal term that means that they believe that Merck knew there was an extreme degree of risk of harm, but they acted--the company acted with indifference.
SIEGEL: Two hundred fifty million dollars is a huge payout. What exactly is Mrs. Ernst being compensated for?
PRAKASH: Indeed. The smallest part of the compensation, $24.5 million, is for the loss of income, her husband's income--he was a produce manager at a local Wal-Mart--for the loss of his companionship, for the loss of--for her pain and her suffering. The bulk of the damages are punitive damages. They're intended to punish Merck for what the jury determined was a malicious behavior. And the jurors I've spoken to have said that they wanted to send a message to Merck that the drugmaker's behavior was completely unacceptable.
SIEGEL: So the jurors are talking?
PRAKASH: Yes, some of them are talking. I spoke to about a half a dozen of them a little while ago. They told me that they came in with open minds, that they didn't have an opinion one way or the other when the trial began some six weeks ago. This was supposed to be a tough jury for the plaintiffs. It's young, mostly Republican, more men than women. But the jurors said, almost to a person, that they felt they were deceived. They said they read Merck's corporate e-mails, and they came to the conclusion that Merck knew Vioxx was risky but it chose to hide those risks.
SIEGEL: Well, what does the message of $250 million plus dollars mean for Merck?
PRAKASH: Well, it's not a good message. At last count the drugmaker faced a little over 4,000 cases in state and federal courts around the country. This case was supposed to be the first test of how well it could defend itself. It was supposed to be a difficult case for the plaintiff--in other words, a favorable case for Merck because the condition that killed Ernst, arrhythmia, isn't specifically linked to Vioxx. The fact that the plaintiff prevailed here would suggest that Merck will face an uphill battle in other courts around the country.
SIEGEL: NPR's Snigdha Prakash in Angleton, Texas, thank you very much.
PRAKASH: Thank you, Robert.