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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Family suing maker of Vioxx

By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer

The family of a 71-year-old man who died of a massive heart attack two years ago has filed a lawsuit here alleging the death was the result of the once-popular prescription drug Vioxx, the anti-inflammatory and pain medication that is the subject of thousands of lawsuits on the Mainland.

The Circuit Court lawsuit by the relatives of Lloyd Karratti is against Vioxx's manufacturer, Merck & Co. Inc., the pharmaceutical giant that pulled the medication off the market in 2004 and has been defending itself in the suits around the country.

The suit is believed to be the first filed here since the drug was withdrawn from the market, according to Honolulu attorney Michael Green, who represents Karratti's family.

One other lawsuit against Merck was filed in behalf of an O'ahu man who died, but the suit was dropped in 2002.

Green said other lawyers here have been sending Vioxx cases to Mainland lawyers, but he said he wanted to handle his own case and filed the suit earlier this month.

If the case survives pretrial proceedings, Green said he will be asking the jury to return a verdict for at least $100 million in punitive damages.

Merck officials did not respond to requests for comment, but cited its Web site, which denies that the company did anything wrong.

The suit by Karratti's relatives makes allegations similar to the Mainland suits charging that Merck knew of the risks of the drug causing heart attacks, but did not disclose them to consumers and doctors.

Karratti retired from the Ho-nolulu Police Department after 26 years in 1980, went into the restaurant business and worked as an investigator with the state Public Defender's Office for 12 years starting in 1990, Green said.

In the mid-1990s, Karratti suffered from a weak heart muscle, but was told to exercise and improved enough to stop taking the medication for that condition in the late 1990s, Green said. Karratti then developed arthritic symptoms in his knee in 2003 and became one of thousands of Hawai'i residents who took Vioxx, according to Green.

Green said Karratti was healthy, active in softball and lifted weights.

But on May 6, 2004, Karratti died from the heart attack while playing softball at the Ala Wai baseball field, Green said.

Green will ask the jury to send a message to Merck as well as other pharmaceutical companies that if they believe they must disclose warnings to the public, they must do it or risk paying for jeopardizing the lives of the consumers, he said.

The request would be for the high amount to deliver that message to Merck, which earned $2 billion in profit for 2000, he said.

Merck denied on its Web site that it knew of heart risks associated with the drug before it pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004.

The company said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Vioxx as safe and effective in 1999. Merck believed that for millions of patients suffering from chronic arthritis pain, Vioxx was "an important treatment option," according to its Web site.

"Merck disclosed the information we had on the benefits and risks of Vioxx in a responsible way," the company said.

The company voluntarily withdrew the drug within a week after learning about a study that showed people who used the drug had more heart attacks and strokes than people who took a placebo, Merck said.

Merck faces more than 9,000 state and federal lawsuits on the Mainland.

Multimillion-dollar verdicts have been returned against the company, but other suits have been thrown out. Each case hinges on the particular circumstances of the person taking drug.

Merck reported that in April, a Texas jury found in favor of a 71-year-old man who died of a heart attack in 2001, but Texas law will limit the punitive damage award to $750,000. Also in April, a New Jersey man was awarded $13.5 million, including $9 million in punitive damages. The company said it was disappointed and would appeal the verdicts.

Green acknowledge that a major issue in Karratti's case will be proving that Vioxx was a cause of the death.

"We have a little bit of a hurdle to overcome," Green said. "It's always the causal connection (which will be a major issue in these types of cases)."

He said he will try to establish that connection with expert testimony.

The suit was filed by Karratti's wife, Liberta, son Lance Karratti and daughter Allison Galdeira.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Ken Kobayashi at kkobayashi@honoluluadvertiser.com.