Today's Papers

Vioxx Is Gored

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Timeslead with news that a Texas jury yesterday awarded $253.5 million to a widow whose husband died of heart failure, allegedly because of side effects from taking the prescription painkiller Vioxx. The verdict is the first in the many cases brought against the pharmaceutical giant Merck since it pulled Vioxx off the market last September, after clinical trials revealed that the drug increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who took it for longer than a year and a half. The Washington Post off-leads the Vioxx case, but leads with the broad-daylight kidnapping and murder of three Sunni political activists in the Iraqi town of Mosul.

Robert Ernst, 59, a triathlete, died in 2001. The papers all play up the huge dollar award to his widow, but predict it will be “substantially reduced” on appeal, as the LAT puts it. Texas law caps punitive damages in such a case to $1.6 million, which whittles down the award by about $227 million right off the bat. (The NYT puts this crucial bit of perspective in the third paragraph, where it should be, while the WP and LAT are both address it more obliquely, further down.) TP wishes the papers had explained why the jury was allowed to exceed the cap—and what impact the huge penalty, however symbolic, may have on the 7,500 other Vioxx cases the WP says Merck faces. The NYT predicts the number of lawsuits could reach 100,000. For now, Merck is still vowing to fight them all.

Everyone notes high up that yesterday’s decision is really bad news for Merck, because this particular case was thought to be weak. Among other things, an autopsy concluded that Ernst died of a heart condition different than the one Vioxx has been linked to. But the jury didn’t buy the drug company’s argument that Ernst just had a bum ticker. “Respect us, that’s the message,” one juror told the NYT, which has the best trial analysis. It hands much of the credit for the victory to “folksy” Ernst attorney W. Mark Lanier, “a part-time Baptist preacher who is considered one of the top trial lawyers in the United States.” Time for a profile?

The WP speculates that with its share price tumbling, Merck could become a takeover target. But a NYT analysis says the “cox-2” class of painkillers, which also includes Celebrex and the now-discontinued drug Bextra, may be poised for a “comeback.” Celebrex, despite terrible publicity and strong warnings, may still do $2 billion in sales this year.

The three unlucky activists, members of the Iraq Islamic Party, were kidnapped off a Mosul street yesterday while hanging banners exhorting their Sunni brethren to vote, the WP says. They were then driven to another part of town and publicly executed. Their killers “then draped their bodies in a get-out-the-vote banner.” The story also mentions a separate killing in Ramadi, where local Sunni tribesmen killed fighters loyal to al Qaeda-affiliated warlord Abu Musab Zarqawi, in an incident that “marked rapidly escalating tensions between foreign-led fighters and Sunnis.”

In its off-lead piece, the LAT downplays the Mosul killings, placing them in a larger context: Sunni clerics and parties like the Iraq Islamic Party are now mobilizing a serious get-out-the-vote campaign, in contrast to the last election, when Sunnis mostly sat out. The NYT, in its excellent (reefered) story, strikes a balance, seeing the killings as a symptom of the rapid atomization of Iraqi politics, as Sunni insurgents fight Sunnis who want to participate in politics.

The NYT off-leads a botched missile attack on two American warships docked in Jordan. Attackers fired three Katyusha rockets at the ships. They all missed. One Jordanian soldier was killed when one of the errant missiles struck a warehouse. Suspicion immediately fell on Iraq-based insurgents, and the attack “stoked growing fear that insurgents from Iraq might be taking the fight against Americans to Jordan,” the paper says.

Everyone stuffs news that Mounir el-Motassadeq, Hamburg buddy of Mohammed Atta, was convicted of belonging to a terrorist organization and sentenced to seven years in prison. Even that light sentence came as a surprise. At the sentencing hearing, the German judge criticized American authorities for not sending al-Qaida baddies like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Germany to testify.

The WP fronts a scary piece on Russia’s vast, unsecured network of antiplague centers. Originally established during czarist times to control outbreaks of bubonic plague and other nasty diseases, the centers were used during the Cold War as fronts for the Soviet biological weapons program. Nowadays, “scientists wearing cotton smocks and surgical masks work with lethal microbes that in the West would be locked away in high-containment laboratories and handled only by scientists in spacesuits,” sometimes with the windows open. Security is lousy, and the centers aren’t eligible for the millions in Western aid intended to keep their scientists well-funded and insulated from temptation.

The NYT fronts news that Northwest Airlines’ mechanics went on strike at midnight ET after management asked them to swallow $176 million in wage and benefits cuts. The airline says it has sca… er, “substitutes” all lined up. The late-closing LAT says that the strike was already causing delays last night.

The LAT fronts coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to his home nation of Germany, where he called Nazism an “insane, racist ideology,” but dodged a request to open the Vatican’s secret World War II archives.

Others are taking more relaxing vacations. Inside, the NYT has a dispatch from London where, in a break with tradition, British newspapers have gone along with a government request to keep the location of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s summer vacation secret. But everyone thinks he’s in Barbados. And the LAT has a nice “Column One” featureon Russia’s vacationing nouveau riche, whose garish McMansion-style dachas are crowding out the modest cottages of old. Russians, being Russians, are at once horrified and resigned.

Forget the Supreme Court—put him on the jury! The WP’s Dana Milbank reports that journalists have unearthed four 1980s-era memos from John Roberts, Supreme Court nominee and precocious fussbudget, to colleagues in the White House, attacking … Michael Jackson. Roberts was concerned that Ronald Reagan, a man who once costarred with a chimpanzee, would compromise his dignity by appearing in public with Jackson, himself no slouch when it came to chimp sidekicks. From Roberts’ opinion:

“If one wants the youth of America and the world sashaying around in garish sequined costumes, hair dripping with pomade, body shot full of female hormones to prevent voice change, mono-gloved, well, then, I suppose ‘Michael,’ as he is affectionately known in the trade, is in fact a good example.”