Unlike Texas, Illinois jury finds Merck not liable

Marilyn Tennissen Mar. 27, 2007, 10:00am

Mikal Watts

A jury in Madison County, Ill., returned a verdict in favor of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. on March 27, rejecting a plaintiff's claim that a woman's fatal heart attack was caused by taking Vioxx.

In the first of thousands of Vioxx lawsuits across the country in August 2005, a jury in Angleton, Texas, found Merck liable for the death of a man who took the once-popular painkiller. The man's widow was awarded $253 million in damages, including $229 million in punitive damages.

But according to an article in the Madison County Record, the jury in Illinois did not agree that Vioxx was the cause of 52-year-old Patricia Schwaller's sudden heart attack.

Plaintiff's attorney Mikal C. Watts of Corpus Christi, Texas, had been seeking an award of tens of millions of dollars for his client Frank Schwaller of Granite City.

The verdict was returned after a four-week trial.

"We believe the evidence showed that Merck acted responsibly and Vioxx was not the cause of Mrs. Schwaller's tragic, sudden cardiac death," Merck attorney Dan Ball of Bryan Cave in St. Louis, said in the Madison County Record story.

"Mrs. Schwaller had multiple risk factors for sudden cardiac death including a family history of heart disease as well as diabetes, high blood pressure and morbid obesity," he added. "Unfortunately, the combination of these risk factors put her at increased risk for sudden cardiac death having nothing to do with Vioxx."

Kenneth Frazier, executive vice president and general counsel for Merck, also was obviously pleased with the verdict.

"Plaintiffs have the burden of proving their claims and we believe these claims are best suited for individual review," Frazier said. "Our strategy has now resulted in 10 favorable jury verdicts and more than 4,000 case dismissals."

According to the Law.com Website, plaintiff's attorney Watts began the Watts Law Firm in Corpus Christi in 1997. The firm specializes in catastrophic personal injury, products liability, aviation and toxic torts. It has additional Texas offices in Houston, San Antonio, McAllen and Brownsville. Watts Law Firm includes more than two dozen lawyers has recovered more than $1 billion in verdicts and settlements.

In the Illinois case, one of the jurors told the Madison County Record that Patricia Schwaller had too many health risk factors to find proximate cause. She was 5 feet, two-inches tall, weighed 280 pounds and had several health problems, according to testimony. Her husband Frank Schwaller filed suit in 2005.

The New Jersey-based company says no link has ever been shown between Vioxx use and irregular heartbeat.

Following the Texas verdict in 2005, Merck shares fell about 8.25 percent.

In the 2005 case in Angleton, the $229 million in punitive damages would be capped under Texas law at about $26 million.

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