The huge damages awarded against Merck for a death associated with Vioxx and further hefty awards against Merck and other big drug firms could cause great pain but might help to change the way they do business to the benefit of consumers.

The public’s attitude to the world’s leading drug companies has always been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand they expect “Big Pharma” to deliver ever more effective cures for the ills that beset them; on the other they decry the vast profits that the industry makes as in some way exploitative.

On Friday August 19th a handful of Texans did what they could to tip the balance back towards the consumer.

By a majority of ten to two, a jury in Angleton, a small town near Houston, decided that Merck, one of America’s largest drug companies, was liable for the death of Robert Ernst. Mr Ernst died in May 2001 of a heart condition that the jury concluded had been brought on by Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory drug manufactured by Merck. Vioxx was withdrawn in September 2004 after a study showed that the product raised the risk of heart attacks in some patients.

The jury awarded Mr Ernst’s widow $253m, mainly comprising punitive damages, having decided that Merck was well aware of the potential risks associated with the drug. One document suggested that the firm was alerted to the troubling side-effects of Vioxx as long ago as 1997, two years before it came to market.

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