[Here’s the From the Editor page for the latest issue of my magazine]
By now, the story of the first Vioxx lawsuit is old news. Merck was found liable in the death of Robert Ernst and the Texas jury awarded more than $250 million to his widow. State laws will knock that down to $26 million, and it may get reduced further on appeal. The penalty is harsh and, if it turns out to be the average payout for each trial, Merck will obviously go under. The company says it still plans to fight each lawsuit individually and not enter a class-action settlement, but has admitted that it may settle some cases rather than go to trial. For more on their legal/financial strategy, check out this Slate article.
The size of the award was troubling, of course, but once a case goes to trial, no one really knows what to expect. What was more troubling was a comment from one of the jurors in the case. From The Wall Street Journal‘s story the Monday after the verdict, we learned the following:
Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. “Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah,” said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown’s teacher makes in the television cartoon. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.”
Yup: In a trial about the impact of Vioxx on Mr. Ernst’s health, the jurors had no idea what the science was about, and essentially ignored that part of the trial. This left them with the folksy popularism of plaintiff’s lawyer Mark W. Lanier, whose post-trial comments showed how he painted the case: “I love when a widow from a small town can stand up against one of the largest companies in the entire world, actually get access to their documents and show a jury how they killed her husband.”
Yup: “How they killed her husband.” I’m not sure if this is a step up or down from John Le Carre’s recent novel (and now a Major Motion Picture!) The Constant Gardener, in which ‘Big Pharma’ leaves the protagonist’s wife dead (and raped) in Africa, because of trials for a lucrative tuberculosis drug. WeÃ¯Â¿Â½re facing a serious PR problem in this business, and it’s not solely about the average American’s aversion to science.* Maybe people have seen Erin Brockovich enough to decide that all big business is evil, but when that big business is developing pharmaceuticals, we’re in serious trouble.
According to the WSJ article, Mr. Lanier assembled a “shadow jury” to follow each day’s proceedings. Each night, the shadow jury met with a consultant (they weren’t told which side they were consulting for) at the local McDonald’s, where they provided their feedback on the case.
Yup: While they were discussing whether it was Vioxx or clogged arteries that caused Mr. Ernst’s fatal heart attack, they were eating McDonald’s on a nightly basis. And they came out 9-4 against Merck.
* About that “average American”: I’ve always contended that, as Americans, we only have two civic duties (as opposed to our existential duties of death and taxes): voting, and jury duty. But plenty of people find their way out of jury duty, ethically or not. This means that Merck was fighting the opening round of the battle for its life with a jury filled with people who couldn’t get out of jury duty.