Today’s Houston Chronicle has an editorial so good, I’m going to reprint the entire thing here.
In Vioxx trial, horrendous facts drove the jury to its verdict and impressive award of damages.
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Texas counties, some more than others, have a reputation for producing civil trial juries whose emotions are easily summoned and whose affections regularly won by slick trial lawyers. Bamboozled by these crafty courtroom showmen, the theory goes, jurors place their sympathy with the injured plaintiff and sock it to businesses just trying to make an honest profit by serving humanity.
However, as the recently concluded trial involving the recalled pain reliever Vioxx reminds us, sympathetic, generous juries often are accompanied by a set of horrendous facts suggesting grossly negligent or unconscionable behavior on the part of the well-heeled defendant.
Vioxx might not have killed Robert Ernst, whose widow sued Merck, the maker of Vioxx. But the trial revealed much for which Merck could be blamed. According to testimony in the trial, the drug company aggressively marketed Vioxx, even after indications that the drug caused heart attacks and strokes. Coddled by a forgiving Food and Drug Administration, Merck delayed strengthening the warning label on the drug for four months after calculating it would earn $229 million by waiting. The company finally pulled Vioxx from the market after a study confirmed the increased risk of cardiac events in some users.
Struck by Merck’s apparent placement of maximum profit above reasonable safeguards for patients, the jury awarded Carol Ernst more than $253 million. Due to Texas limits on punitive damages, the award probably will be reduced to $26.1 million.
Supporters of tort reform in recent years talked much about frivolous lawsuits filed against hardworking doctors and harassed businesses. They complained of greedy trial lawyers preying upon honest commerce, increasing the cost of goods to consumers.
But they didn’t mention reprehensible executives who would let customers die needlessly if it meant greater profits. They ignored the lives, such as Carol Ernst’s, scarred by the tragic death of a family member.
This state’s limits on punitive damages protect egregious conduct as well as responsible behavior. For that, Merck’s management can be grateful as it defends every lawsuit, appeals every loss, resists accountability and admits no wrong.