Widow Triumphs Over Drug Maker

Vioxx trial, Plaintiff Carol Ernst, center, and her attorneys Randy Moore and Ben Morelli react to the jury's verdict in her favor in her case against Vioxx maker Merck Co. Friday, Aug. 19, 2005, in Angleton, Texas.
A Texas jury found pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. liable Friday for the death of a man who took the once-popular painkiller Vioxx, awarding his widow $253.4 million in damages in the first of thousands of lawsuits pending across the country.

A seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated for 10½ hours over two days before returning the verdict in a 10-2 vote. But the damage award is likely to be drastically cut to no more than $26.1 million because Texas law caps the punitive damages that made up the bulk of the total.

Plaintiff Carol Ernst began to cry when the verdict was read while her attorneys jumped up and shouted, "Amen!"

CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen said the jury found Merck to have acted with malice, which is a cut below negligence on the sliding scale of responsibility.

"That tells me that these jurors were convinced that Merck didn't just drop the ball but that it purposely reacted inappropriately," Cohen said.

Jurors in the semi-rural county rejected Merck's argument that Robert Ernst, 59, died of clogged arteries rather than a Vioxx-induced heart attack that led to his fatal arrhythmia. Ernst, a produce manager at a Wal-Mart store, ran marathons and taught aerobics classes on the side.

Merck insisted no studies ever showed a link to irregular heart beat although CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick reported that it wasn't an issue in this case.

The case drew national attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers, stock analysts and arbitrageurs as a signal of what lies ahead for Merck, which has vowed to fight the more than 4,200 state and federal Vioxx-related lawsuits pending across the country. Merck said it plans to appeal.

Cohen said he thinks the huge punitive damage is likely to be reduced on appeal and CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason reports that Carol Ernst's attorneys admitted the fight is far from over.

"But we got justice and we got the verdict we wanted whether we see a penny or not. The truth is out there," said Ernst's attorney, Mark Lanier.

Ernst called the verdict a "wake-up call" for pharmaceutical companies. "This has been a long road for me," she told reporters later. "But I felt strongly that this was the road I needed to take so other families wouldn't suffer the same pain I felt at the time."

After news of the late-afternoon decision, Merck shares fell 7.7 percent to close at $28.06, wiping away almost $5.2 billion in market capitalization.

Merck lawyer Jonathan Skidmore said the appeal would center on what he termed "unreliable scientific evidence."

"It'll be based on the fact that we believe unqualified expert testimony was allowed in the case; there were expert opinions that weren't grounded in science, the type that are required in the state of Texas," he said. "We don't believe they (plaintiffs) met their burden of proof."

The jury awarded $450,000 in economic damages for Robert Ernst's lost pay, $24 million for mental anguish and loss of companionship and $229 million in punitive damages.