A Texas appeals court on Wednesday overturned a multimillion-dollar verdict against Merck & Co. in one of the few trials it lost over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.
A jury in Rio Grande City, Texas, in April 2006 awarded $32 million US to the widow of 71-year-old Leonel Garza, a short-term Vioxx user who died of a heart attack in 2001.
That award — $7 million for compensatory damages and $25 million for punitive damages — later was cut to about $7.75 million under Texas law limiting damages.
But on Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Texas 4th Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, ruling in favour of Merck. The opinion was signed by Justice Sandee Bryan Marion.
The judges wrote that Garza's family did not prove his brief use of Vioxx caused two blood clots that the family's attorneys argued triggered his heart attack. The judges also concluded the family did not provide sufficient evidence to rule out his long-standing heart disease as the cause of his fatal heart attack.
Garza had a prior heart attack and heart bypass surgery, smoked for nearly 30 years and died of the second heart attack after taking Vioxx for less than a month.
Merck lawyers had argued that heart attack was the end result of his 23 years of heart disease.
David Hockema, one of the Garza family attorneys, said they had just read the opinion and had not decided on their next move. Possible next steps would be a motion for a rehearing before the same court of appeals or a petition to the Texas Supreme Court, he said.
"I think the decision is clearly wrong and sets an impossible burden for the plaintiff to show the offending instrument (Vioxx) was the sole cause of their injury," Hockema said.
Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after research showed the painkiller doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes. That triggered an avalanche of lawsuits against Merck, which has a $4.85-billion settlement pending to end the bulk of the personal injury suits.
The Garzas and others whose cases went to trial before the settlement agreement in November are not eligible to participate.