Appeals court overturns $7.75 mln Vioxx verdict

NEW YORK Wed May 14, 2008 11:03pm BST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - An appeals court in Texas overturned a $7.75 million verdict against Merck & Co (MRK.N) involving its withdrawn pain drug Vioxx on Wednesday, ruling that evidence presented at trial failed to prove the medicine caused the heart attack suffered by the plaintiff's husband.

A jury in April of 2006 found that Vioxx was responsible for the death of 71-year-old Leonel Garza and awarded his wife, Felicia Garza, $7 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

Due to limits under Texas law, the punitive damages were later knocked down to $750,000, although Merck had not paid any of the award, pending the appeal.

Merck appeared to have a strong case at the trial as Garza had taken Vioxx for less than a month and had had a previous heart attack. But the jury came down on the side of the widow, finding that Merck hid the risks of the drug and that Vioxx was a major cause of the heart attack.

The Texas Fourth Court of Appeals disagreed with the jury's decision.

"Even viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, we conclude the evidence is legally insufficient to support a finding that plaintiffs negated, with reasonable certainty, Mr. Garza's preexisting heart condition as a plausible cause of his death," Justice Sandee Bryan Marion wrote in the unanimous decision in favor of Merck.

Ted Mayer, Merck's outside counsel, applauded the appellate court's ruling.

"Today's decision reaffirms that there is simply no reliable scientific evidence that Vioxx caused Mr. Garza's heart attack," Mayer said in a statement.

Merck pulled the once $2.5 billion a year drug from the market in September 2004 after a study found it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients who took it for at least 18 months. By then the medicine had been used by some 20 million U.S. patients.

After winning the majority of cases that went to trial, Merck agreed in November to pay $4.85 billion to settle most of the claims that Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes in thousands of users. At the time the settlement was announced, Merck was facing some 26,600 lawsuits from former Vioxx users.

The company said earlier this month that at least 94 percent of eligible claimants have elected to participate in the settlement.

Merck shares were up 1.6 percent, to $39.80 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Bill Berkrot, editing by Dave Zimmerman and Tim Dobbyn)

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