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Jury blames Vioxx for man's heart attack, awards $20 million

TRENTON, N.J. – Merck & Co.’s painkiller Vioxx contributed to the heart attack of an Idaho postal worker, a state jury in Atlantic City ruled Monday. The jury awarded Frederick ‘Mike’ Humeston and his wife $20 million in compensatory damages.

The verdict at the end of the eight-week trial means Merck has now won nine cases and lost five in the mushrooming litigation over its former blockbuster arthritis pill.

Humeston, 61, of Boise, Idaho, suffered a heart attack in September 2001, several months before Merck _ under pressure from federal regulators _ put a stronger warning about the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx on the drug’s detailed package insert.

Humeston, a decorated veteran, had taken Vioxx intermittently for about two months for knee pain from a Vietnam War shrapnel wound.

The five-man, three-woman jury ruled on March 2 that Merck was negligent and did not provide adequate warning about those risks prior to Humeston’s heart attack. That set the stage for a second phase of the trial, with the jury last week hearing evidence on whether Vioxx contributed to Humeston’s heart attack, entitling him to damages.

The jurors awarded Humeston $18 million in compensatory damages and gave another $2 million to his wife, Mary.

The jury, which deliberated for about five hours over two days, also decided Humeston should be reimbursed for his out-of-pocket costs for Vioxx.

A third phase of the trial will now begin, with jurors considering whether they should assess punitive damages against Merck.

Humeston lost his first trial against the pharmaceutical giant in 2005, but New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee granted him a second trial because new evidence surfaced that short-term Vioxx use could also be risky. Merck insists Vioxx didn’t increase cardiac risks until after 18 months of use, but many doctors say research disproves that.

‘It’s been a long battle. I’m just happy that justice finally prevailed,’ said Humeston’s lawyer, Christopher Seeger.

Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after its own research showed the drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Merck lawyers contended that Humeston had several risk factors for heart disease, including being overweight and sedentary and having high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The company’s lawyers questioned his claim that he took Vioxx on the day of the heart attack and noted that he sometimes took large doses of ibuprofen, another pain reliever linked to elevated heart attack risk.

In the unusual, two-phase court proceeding in Atlantic City, jurors were initially asked to only consider Merck’s conduct in marketing and disclosing risks of Vioxx.

Judge Higbee chose the two-phase arrangement to try to speed up Vioxx trials. She is overseeing all Vioxx lawsuits filed in New Jersey _ more than half of the roughly 28,000 suits Merck faces.

The jurors ruled on March 2 that Merck was negligent in the case of Humeston, but not in the case of a second plaintiff in the trial, the sister of Brian Hermans of Waupaca, Wis. He died at age 44 after having a heart attack in September 2002, after the stronger warning was issued.

However, because the jury found Merck violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by omitting or giving misleading information about Vioxx in its marketing, the Hermans’ family is entitled to be reimbursed for three times the amount he spent on Vioxx. His attorney can also be reimbursed for his fees and costs. Higbee is to rule on those issues later.

Merck has vowed to fight each lawsuit individually, despite repeated calls from plaintiffs’ lawyers to negotiate a settlement.

Merck shares fell 22 cents to $44.39 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.