Carlene Lewis, 51, Dies; Lawyer Who Fought Vioxx
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
Carlene R. Lewis, a Houston lawyer whose early suspicions about the safety of the pain reliever Vioxx put her in the forefront of what is now a wave of litigation against its maker, Merck, died Monday in Houston. She was 51.
The cause was complications of ovarian cancer, according to her husband, Greg Lewis.
Ms. Lewis first began looking into possible dangers of Vioxx in the fall of 2000. She investigated claims that Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes in long-term users. Five years later, in August 2005, she was part of a team of three lawyers that won a verdict of $253.5 million against Merck in a state court in Texas, one of the largest damage awards ever to a single plaintiff.
The Association of American Trial Lawyers said yesterday that before her death Ms. Lewis had been chosen to receive its annual award for public service for her efforts against Vioxx. Her family is to accept the award at the association's convention in Seattle.
"This is a story of her determination," said Miriam Bourdette, a member of the association's board of governors. "She got a lot of other lawyers involved in this at a very early stage."
Merck has said it will appeal the Texas case and two others it has lost. Two juries have ruled in its favor. More than 20 million people had taken Vioxx before Merck took it off the market in September 2004, and the company is facing 11,500 lawsuits in behalf of 23,000 plaintiffs. About a dozen cases are scheduled for trial before the end of this year.
Christopher Seeger, a New York lawyer who joined forces with Ms. Lewis against Vioxx in 2001, said: "She was the first lawyer I know to begin investing money and really investigating whether Vioxx was a safe drug or whether it was causing heart attacks. She concluded in 2001 that this drug ought to be off the market and she was vindicated in 2004."
Ms. Lewis starting investigating Vioxx after a friend of her mother's said she had become ill after taking the drug and soon lost her job, according to Shelly Sanford, one of her law partners. Ms. Lewis wrote two letters to Merck seeking to negotiate a settlement in behalf of her mother's friend, Ms. Sanford said, but both offers were rejected.
"Then she went about the litigation process," Ms. Sanford said.
As lawsuits against Merck began to multiple, Ms. Lewis was appointed by a federal judge to a panel of lawyers charged with overseeing the gathering of records concerning Vioxx from the company. She was also appointed to a similar panel in connection with litigation against Pfizer involving the drug Bextra, which, like Vioxx belongs to a class of pain-reducing drugs known as cox-2 inhibitors.
Carlene Rhodes Lewis was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1954. She graduated with honors from Harvard in 1976 and received an award as the outstanding female athlete of her class. She taught at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., before going to law school at the University of Virginia. She graduated in 1983.
In 1984, she joined the firm of Sewell & Riggs in Houston and specialized in defending corporations in product liability suits. Five years later, she and a colleague at Sewell & Riggs, Daniel Goforth, formed the firm now known as Goforth Lewis Sanford. She eventually focused on representing plaintiffs.
Besides her husband, Ms. Lewis is survived by two daughters, Carla and Christy; her mother, Alene Rhodes of Houston; and her brother, Tim Rhodes of South Shores, N.C.
June 8, 2006
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