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Internet search led widow to victory over Vioxx

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Aug. 23--Carol Ernst acknowledges she may never see a cent of the $253.45 million verdict she was awarded in her fight against Merck & Co., but that doesn't bother her.

"I may not even be around" to receive any award, Ernst told the Chronicle in a telephone interview Monday evening from her home in Keene, south of Fort Worth. "It's not something that's definite or anything. If it happens it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

The realization that she may not live to see the conclusion of her case involving the once popular painkiller Vioxx doesn't worry the social worker. She contends that Vioxx, which her husband took for more than seven months for pain in his hands, led to his death.

The emotionally and physically grueling six-week trial would still have been worth it. The grandmother of four, who had researched the drug on the Internet and found other deaths blaming it, said her purpose was to keep others from going through the pain she suffered when her 59-year-old husband, Robert, died in 2001.

"Number one, it's not on the market anymore," she said of Vioxx. "Number two, the pharmaceutical companies know or should know that physicians and consumers have the right to know risks that are involved in taking drugs, especially when the information is there. They (drug companies) are not the ones who should be making (the decision) what risks to disclose or not to disclose and make that decision for us."

The 60-year-old Ernst, whose lawsuit against Merck was the first to be tried among nearly 4,300 lawsuits filed in state and federal courts, says she's still in a daze and just trying to get on with her life.

She returned to her home on a quiet cul-de-sac Saturday evening with the hopes of bringing some kind of normalcy to her daily goings-on.

After having spent six weeks in a downtown Houston hotel, she determined city life is not for her or her miniature dachshund, Bo. Her dog was terrified of the noise and traffic. Both are glad to be home.

"I spent Sunday doing laundry and going to the grocery store," she said. Monday, she returned to her job at a local nursing home. "Everyone was happy to see me. They kept telling me, 'I saw you on TV." "

Piecing it together She may be in the spotlight for years to come. Merck announced it planned to appeal the jury's decision moments after the verdict was read in a Brazoria County courtroom Friday afternoon. And liability caps will probably hold actual damages to $26.1 million if the verdict is upheld.

"When I first started on this road I had no idea" the case would gain such notoriety, Ernst said.

"There had been other court dates set and they had been postponed. I never thought when I started on this journey that I would end up being the first one to go to trial. By the time it got to that point, I realized how important it was -- even though you know that it's hard to imagine what it's like."

After her husband died three days before the couple's first wedding anniversary, Ernst said she was numb and in shock. A fellow social worker agreed to take on her shift, which at the time meant working with hospice patients.

Months after her husband died, Ernst -- who had been divorced for 13 years before one of her daughters introduced her to her future husband -- received a copy of the autopsy report. She visited with the coroner to try to understand how her physically fit husband who ran marathons could have died so suddenly. Then she sat at the computer.

"I have no idea on this Earth what made me decide to look up Vioxx on the computer. It was almost like I was led to it or something told me to do it," Ernst recalled. "All I typed in was 'Vioxx." You would have thought Merck or something like that would be the first item, but the first one that popped up was that 11 deaths in Great Britain were being linked to Vioxx."

Ernst was stunned.

"The breath just went out of me," she said.

The medical director for the hospice care center where she was then working suggested she look into Vioxx further.

She returned to the coroner, Dr. Maria Araneta, who in turn offered to run more blood tests from samples she had retained of Robert Ernst to see if he had Vioxx in his system. But Merck, she was told a few weeks later, would not provide the lab with the necessary formula to test the blood for Vioxx.

An ad on the radio Weeks went by before a social worker colleague told Ernst of hearing a radio commercial about a Houston law firm wanting to talk to people affected by Vioxx. She called the law firm.

Her information was passed to several law firms before landing on attorney Mark Lanier's desk. "I wasn't even a part of the chain," she said.

Throughout the trial, the reserved mother of four grown children found herself the center of local and national media of attention. Nothing, she said, could have prepared her for the cameras and reporters.

When state District Judge Ben Hardin started reeling off the jury's decision, "everything started swirling and everything went blank. ... I was sitting there but it was like I was not there."

She remembers being told that she would be meeting with the jurors in an adjacent building and then meet with reporters. All she really wanted at the time was a glass of water.

"The bailiffs and attorneys were wanting me to go fast, I said, 'You guys, my legs are like Jell-O, I can't go fast." I thought I was going to fall down."

After spending time with jurors, she and Lanier held a news conference. "I'd see all these people asking questions and words were coming out of my mouth and I thought, 'Who is that person talking?'


--What it's about: In the first of thousands of Vioxx cases to go to court, Carol Ernst blames pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. for the 2001 death of her husband, Robert Ernst. 7/5/05.

--The legal teams: A matchup of legal powerhouses. 7/11/05.


-- Texas sues: Merck accused of downplaying dangers of Vioxx. 6/30/05.

Other lawsuits involving Vioxx pending against Merck:

--4,275 suits in federal and state courts.

--119 class action cases pending, but none certified.


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