Friday, August 19, 2005

Who needs tort reform?

Vioxx, the trade name of the generic drug rofecoxib, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 1999, for the treatment of osteoarthritis, menstrual pain and the management of acute pain in adults. On September 30, 2004 the manufacturer of Vioxx, Merck & Co., Inc. (Merck) announced that it was voluntarily withdrawing Vioxx from the market worldwide, due to increased risks of cardiovascular problems (including heart attack and stroke) in users of the drug.
In May of 2001, Robert Ernst, a 59 year-old Wal-Mart produce manager from Texas, died in his sleep from arrhythmia after having taken Vioxx for eight months to relieve arthritis symptoms in his hands.

Today, a Texas jury found Merck liable and awarded Ernst's widow $253.4 million in damages, certain to increase the number of Vioxx-related suits against the drugmaker exponentially. There are already 4,200 filed.

While certain to be appealed and the award lowered, consider that attorneys in suits such as this typically take 40-50% after reimbursements for expenses.

These lawsuits-gone-wild are precisely the reason George W. Bush has urged Congress to pass some sort of meaningful tort reform. While drugmakers and all manufacturers need to be held liable for defective products that cause harm, absurd monetary awards do nothing but build personal wealth for attorneys (John Edwards' net worth has been estimated as high as $60 million), stifle innovation and create a lottery mentality for anyone who so much as gets a splinter from a broom handle. The costs are ultimately borne by all consumers and, in the case of prescription drugs, the biggest consumers are the nation's elderly.

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