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Merck Vioxx $253 million settlement signals death of big pharma?

A staggering verdict was found in Angleton, Texas against pharmaceutical conglomerate Merck & Co. when the jury today handed back $24 million in actual damages plus an additional $229 million in exemplary, punitive damages for the widow of former Vioxx patient Robert Ernst.

The background story is that triathlete Robert Ernst had been on the prescription heart drug Vioxx and then died of what the coroner later described as "arrhythmia" or an irregular heartbeat. Ernst's widow's attorney argued that Vioxx had led to a heart attack that had caused the arrhythmia, not the direct death.

While Merck voluntarily removed Vioxx from the marketplace last September after studies linked Vioxx to a higher rate of heart attacks and strokes after taking the drug for 18 months, it was too late for thousands of potential victims. Ernst is the first of over 4000 lawsuits alleging injuries from Vioxx.

If this one case produces a verdict of almost $255 million, then even if only 10% of the 4000 cases already filed were settled in favor of the plaintiff, not Merck, it could theoretically cost upwards of...