Leonel Garza had a long history of heart disease when he died alone at his ranch near Rio Grande City on April 21, 2001.
Twenty years earlier, he suffered a heart attack. His cardiac problems ultimately required quadruple bypass surgery to alleviate blockages in four of his coronary arteries. Later, he underwent a cardiac catheterization procedure that revealed additional blockages in three arteries, followed by a second such procedure that revealed severe recurrent coronary artery disease.
As if this wasn’t enough, Garza had a stent placed in his left main artery to increase the blood flow into his heart. The stent was of limited help as he was later diagnosed with atherosclerotic obstructive disease and chronic venous insufficiency in his legs. On top of those problems, his doctors discovered an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Despite these serious health issues, Garza’s family blamed Merck and its painkiller Vioxx for the man’s death.
You see, 25 days before his death, Garza went to see his cardiologist, complaining of intermittent numbness, pain, and weakness in his left arm. After determining that Garza was not having a heart attack, the doctor prescribed a week’s supply of Vioxx for pain relief.
In a follow-up visit eight days later, Garza received another prescription for thirty additional 25 mg Vioxx pills.
Seventeen days later, Garza was dead. An autopsy found that the immediate cause of death was a “probable” myocardial infarction, initiated at least in part by the underlying cause of severe coronary artery disease.
Deciding that it was no coincidence that Garza died less than a month after he started taking Vioxx, his family filed a product liability suit against Merck in Texas state court.
In 2006, a sympathetic jury agreed that Merck’s warnings were inadequate and awarded Garza’s family $32 million.
Thereafter, the verdict was cut to $7.75 million by the trial judge, reversed by the Texas Court of Appeals, capped at $750,000 under state law, and remanded for a new trial when the state court of appeals took a second look and found juror misconduct.
Last week, the Texas Supreme Court cut to the chase and decided that Merck was not liable at all because Garza’s family could not prove causation.
Specifically, the court concluded that studies showing a statistically significant doubling of the risk of heart attack from taking Vioxx were unreliable under Texas law.
Moreover, the court rejected the Garza family’s argument that the totality of the evidence established general causation.
“The Garzas argue that the risk doubling for Garza required by [state law] can be extrapolated from studies finding a doubling of the risk at much higher doses and longer durations. But the Garzas cannot point to any scientific basis for such an extrapolation. The totality of the evidence cannot prove general causation if it does not meet the standards for scientific reliability established by [our precedents]. …
“A plaintiff cannot prove causation by presenting different types of unreliable evidence. Thus, we are constrained to hold that the Garzas did not present reliable evidence of general causation and are therefore not entitled to recover against Merck,” the court said. (Merck v. Garza)
— Pat Murphy