Merck, muzzled

The Madison County Record Mar. 18, 2007, 9:00am

Jurors know how and where Frank Schwaller originally met his late wife, Pattie.

They know she once dumped root beer on him at an old A & W restaurant. They've heard about how she loved to cook, read and cross stitch, take float trips on the Meramec River and vacations to Silver Dollar City in Branson.

They heard her husband call her a "sweetheart." They heard him say he is lonely.

In Madison County's reigning courtroom drama over the painkiller, Vioxx, plaintiff's lawyers are working overtime to jerk juror tears. The deceased and the family members she left behind, they argue, deserve our compassion and consideration.

We don't disagree.

The same should go for Merck, a drug maker that followed the letter of the law, but remains under siege.

Yet, in the process of making its case, jurors won't soon hear any similarly heartwarming trips down memory lane at the company.

They won't hear about the millions of lives Merck and companies like it save with their products; how dramatically their risk-taking and innovation has impacted modern life for the better; how we take for granted that we'll play tennis in our 60s and golf in our 70s when it wasn't too long ago that age relegated the vast majority to the porch and a rocking chair.

They won't hear Merck and Vioxx put into perspective because they cannot. The courtroom rules of this trial, for whatever reason, forbid as much.

Merck cannot tell jurors about the great hope its employees had for Vioxx, a life-saving solution for the tens of thousands of Americans who suffer from chronic pain, but bleed too easily to take products like aspirin.

Merck cannot explain that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), after rigorous testing, approved the drug. It cannot note how many of its key employees involved with Vioxx believed in the product so much they took it themselves. It cannot point out how media hype has since blown the risks associated with this drug-- of all drugs-- so far out of proportion.

Jurors won't hear any sob stories of loved ones lost because they could no longer take Vioxx, since bullied off the market by plaintiff-hunting lawyer ad campaigns like those of Brown & Crouppen.

They won't learn that a majority of doctors want Vioxx-- this same product being charged with killing Frank Schwaller's wife-- back on the market so more people can take it.

They won't be apprised how blame games like this one hurt overall drug development in this country; how they've focused our pharmaceutical companies on fighting off trial lawyers, rather producing the next life-changing drug we all expect.

It's true that courtroom battles aren't supposed to look like public policy debates. Lawyers are instructed to stick to the facts of the matter; to the issues at hand.

But these are the issues at hand.

Pattie Schwaller, for whichever reason she died, deserves our sympathies. But her justice, and her lawyers' legal fees, aren't best served in a vacuum.

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