A Texas jury awarded damages totalling more than $253 million to Carol Ernst, whose 59-year-old triathlete husband Robert died in May 2001 from heart failure after using Vioxx to treat pain in his hands.

The stunning total levied by the jury in the first of many Vioxx lawsuits included $229 million in punitive damages for liability, negligence and malice, a District Court official said.

The company swiftly said it would appeal the lawsuit, and expressed confidence the award would not stand.

"The case presented to the jury by the plaintiff was fundamentally flawed. The jury was allowed to hear testimony that was not based on reliable science and that was irrelevant," Merck senior vice president and general counsel Kenneth Frazier said in a statement.

"We have strong points to raise on appeal and are hopeful that a higher court will correct the verdict. Even if the verdict were to be upheld, punitive damages under Texas law would be limited to approximately $2 million."

Deluged with lawsuits

Merck insists that it acted
responsibly throughout

Merck has been deluged with lawsuits around the world since it yanked the 2.5-billion-dollar-a-year seller Vioxx from the market last September after an internal study showed it increased the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

The drug was taken by more than 20 million people worldwide before its withdrawal.

More than 100 Australians are preparing to take legal action against Merck, said lawyer Richard Meeran, whose firm is representing Australians who believed they had suffered heart attacks after using Vioxx.

The company's share price plummeted on the news of Friday's verdict, losing nearly eight percent to close at $28.06. Carol Ernst expressed enormous relief at the verdict.

"In the four years that I knew and loved Bob, I went to a lot of his marathons, his triathlons. This has been my run for Bob," she told reporters in Angleton, 45 miles (72km) south of Houston.

"I know this was a run well worth doing and I'm glad we crossed the finishing line finally," she said.

Faceless and nameless act

The widow's attorney, Mark Lanier, said Merck had conducted a "faceless and nameless" act in selling Vioxx for at least seven months after discovering potential health problems with the medicine.

"You can't just use your money and resources to run. At some point the running has to stop," he said, vowing to pursue other cases against Merck brought by plaintiffs across the United States.

Merck, however, says it withdrew Vioxx as soon as it knew of any potential health risks and that in any case, the drug did not cause Robert Ernst's death.

"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"

Merck,
Pharmaceutical company

"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."

"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."

Proof

Merck attorneys argued that Robert Ernst had not taken Vioxx long enough to be at any increased risk of heart trouble and died of cardiac arrhythmias, not a sudden heart attack or stroke.

Cardiac arrhythmias are a combination of conditions that make the heart pump less effectively, so that not enough blood reaches the brain and other vital organs.

A study sponsored by the US Food and Drug Administration estimated that Vioxx could have caused 27,785 heart attacks or deaths since it was approved in 1999.

In February, an FDA panel determined that Vioxx did cause possible cardiovascular problems but narrowly voted to allow its return to the market.