ANGLETON, Texas (AP) -- 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 10 1/2 hours over two days before returning the verdict.
Plaintiff Carol Ernst began to cry when the verdict was read while her attorneys jumped up and shouted, "Amen!"
The plaintiffs team huddled and hugged and repeated, "Amen, amen," while plaintiff's lawyer Ben Morelli told Ernst, "It's your jury."
"Anyone who said they are too small town or won't understand, they are crazy," said Ernst's lawyer, Mark Lanier. "They know truth, and they know justice."
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.
Merck expressed its disappointment in a prepared statement.
"We believe that the plaintiff did not meet the standard set by Texas law to prove Vioxx caused Mr. Ernst's death," Merck attorney Jonathan Skidmore said in the statement. "There is no reliable scientific evidence that shows Vioxx causes cardiac arrhythmias, which an autopsy showed was the cause of Mr. Ernst's death, along with coronary atherosclerosis."
The jury broke down the damage award as $450,000 in economic damages - Robert Ernst's lost pay as a Wal-Mart produce manager; $24 million for mental anguish and loss of companionship, and $229 million in punitive damages.
But the punitive damage amount is likely to be reduced as state law caps it at twice the amount of economic damages - lost pay - and up to $750,000 on top of non-economic damages, which are comprised of mental anguish and loss of companionship.
Under that formula, $1.65 million is the maximum amount of punitive damages that Carol Ernst could receive, versus the $229 million that is being sought.
"This case did not call for punitive damages," added Skidmore. "Merck acted responsibly - from researching Vioxx prior to approval in clinical trials involving almost 10,000 patients - to monitoring the medicine while it was on the market - to voluntarily withdrawing the medicine when it did."
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.
"Merck should come to the table and accept responsibility," Lanier said.
If the first wave of verdicts go against Merck, experts predict it will open the floodgates for more lawsuits and could force the drug company to settle cases out of court. Analysts have speculated Merck's liability could reach $18 billion.
If Merck prevails in future cases, however, lawsuits could fade away, easing some of the pressure on its stock.
Another trial is set to begin in New Jersey, where Merck is based, next month, and the first federal trial in New Orleans is slated for late November.
Merck pulled Vioxx, a $2.5 billion seller, from the market in September 2004 when a long-term study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer.
But unlike many other pending lawsuits involving obvious heart attacks, the Ernst case centered on an autopsy that attributed his death to an arrhythmia secondary to clogged arteries. That autopsy - and the coroner who performed it - proved critical to the trial's outcome.
Merck pointed to the autopsy as proof that Vioxx could not have caused the death of Ernst, who ran marathons and taught aerobics.
However, Dr. Maria Araneta, the pathologist who performed Ernst's autopsy, testified for Ernst that a blood clot that she couldn't find probably caused a heart attack that triggered Ernst's arrhythmia. She also said the heart attack killed Ernst too quickly for his heart to show damage.
While she couldn't say definitively that he had a blood clot and heart attack, she insisted they were the likely culprits in triggering an arrhythmia, which she said wouldn't happen on its own.
Araneta didn't blame Vioxx, however, noting she knew little about the drug when she performed Ernst's autopsy. But three plaintiff's experts in arrhythmia, cardiology and public health did.
Merck's experts agreed with Araneta's conclusions in the autopsy, but not her undocumented theory of what triggered the arrhythmia.
Shares of Merck & Co. fell $2.37, or 7.8 percent, to $28.04 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange following the verdict.