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In the first Vioxx trial in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, a jury awarded $32 million to the family of a 71-year-old man who suffered a fatal heart attack in 2001 after taking the popular painkiller for almost a month, an attorney for the family says. “This is the first case where a jury found that short-term use of Vioxx could cause a heart attack,” says Joe Escobedo Jr., one of the lead attorneys for the family of Leonel Garza Sr. and a partner in Hockema, Tippit & Escobedo in McAllen. In Felicia Garza , et al. v. Merck & Co., the 10 man, two woman jury deliberated about eight hours over a two-day period before returning its verdict on April 21, a spokesperson in the Starr County District Clerk’s Office says. Judge Alex W. Gabert of the 229th District Court presides over the trial in Rio Grande City, located on the Texas-Mexico border. Mauro Ruiz, another attorney for the Garza family and an associate with Hockema, Tippit, says the jury awarded $7 million in compensatory damages to Garza’s widow and three sons. Ruiz says the jury also awarded $25 million in punitive damages, with 40 percent of that money for the widow and 20 percent to each of the sons. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had asked the jury to award the family $22 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion in punitive damages. Travis Sales, one of Merck’s attorneys, says punitive damages are limited to $750,000 under Texas law. Merck, which is headquartered in Whitehouse Station, N.J., will appeal the compensatory and punitive damages, says Sales, a partner in Baker Botts in Houston. “There is no scientific evidence presented for this short-time use to connect Vioxx to [Garza's] heart attack,” Sales says. That will be a primary point on appeal, he adds. Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after a study showed the drug could be linked to the increased risk of cardiovascular problems if it was take for more than 18 months. Sales says that Merck’s defense team is disappointed in the verdict but knows that Starr County is a difficult jurisdiction for corporate defendants. Ruiz says Merck did everything it could to keep a Starr County jury from deciding the case. Merck succeeded in a motion to remove the case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District in McAllen and also had the case sent to the multidistrict litigation court in New Orleans, he says. U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana remanded the case to the 229th District Court for trial, which began in January, Sales says. Sales says that because Gabert is a circuit judge who sits in several counties, the trial was conducted one week per month from January through April. “It was a very difficult trial schedule,” he says.

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