Friday August 19th, 2005

Merck found liable in death of Texan...Record gasoline prices recorded each day this past week...State unemployment rate falls in July...

A jury has found pharmaceutical giant Merck liable for the death of a Texas man who took the painkiller Vioxx. Jurors in Angleton awarded the widow of Robert Ernst more than $250,000 in damages. Merck plans to appeal. Jurors rejected Merck's argument that Ernst died of clogged arteries--rather than a Vioxx-induced heart attack that led to his fatal arrhythmia. The decision came during the second day of deliberations in the first Vioxx civil case against Merck to go to trial. The case has drawn national attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers and stock analysts. Merck has vowed to fight the more than 4,200 state and federal Vioxx-related lawsuits pending across the country.

A Brooklyn law school professor says if Merck can't win the weak ones, what does that say about the strong ones? Merck and company was on the expensive end of a wrongful-death verdict in Angleton involving its painkilling drug Vioxx. Experts say it appeared to be a weak case. More than 4,200 lawsuits had already been filed against Merck before today. One analyst with Zacks Investment research says he believes a Merck loss means the number of cases against the company increases tenfold. Next up is a trial in Atlantic City, New Jersey--Merck's home state. It involves a postal worker who had a heart attack, and Vioxx has been directly linked to heart attacks. In November, the first of 1,800 federal cases involving Vioxx will be heard in New Orleans.

A 53-year-old homemaker was the forewoman and the oldest of the dozen jurors who decided the outcome of the nation's first vioxx-related lawsuit to go to trial. The panel of seven men and five women was comprised mostly of working-class. It included a service representative for a government agency, a technician for a chemical company, a construction worker, a product technician for a sales and rental store, a secretary, an electrician and child care provider. Seven jurors had only high school educations, while two went to college for two years and one for four. The other two didn't indicate where their education stopped. Six jury members were in their 40's and five in their 20's. Ten were white, one was black and one was Hispanic.


Each day brought a new record high for Texas gasoline prices this week with increases this week nearing 25 cents per gallon in some cities. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey released today shows the average price of self-serve regular gas in Texas soared 22 cents per gallon to almost $2.54. That's almost 76 cents higher than last year's average. The average price climbed almost 25 cents per gallon in the Galveston-Texas City area to $2.58. Prices in Houston and Fort Worth increased by more than 24 cents, to just over $2.56 a gallon. AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the increases are the greatest ever seen in Texas. The auto club blames the accelerating increases to a combination of high crude-oil prices, summertime demand, breakdowns at various U. S. refineries and profit-taking. She says prices are expected to continue climbing before maxing out. Dallas continues to have the costliest self-serve regular with an average pump price of $2.60--up almost 24 cents from last week. San Antonio had the least expensive gas at $2.46 per gallon--still up almost 20 cents. Nationally, regular self-serve averaged close to $2.59 per gallon--up 18 cents from last week.


Oil prices are bouncing back from this week's weakness, rising more than $1 per barrel. Traders reacted to a fire at a massive refining complex in Venezuela and developments in Ecuador, where protesters had forced a halt to production. Bullish sentiment also got a boost by news of explosions in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. Meanwhile, markets remain wary over Iran's nuclear ambitions, with expectations that the situation could escalate.


Pasadena police have arrested nine people on organized crime charges, accusing them of using digital key pad programmers to override payment systems at gas pumps and steal more than 3,000 gallons of gasoline. Police said the group targeted at least four locations in the Harris County area since July 21st. Police say the gasoline was pumped into 55-gallon drums and that the suspects allowed others to fill their tanks at rates lower than the price at the pump. Pasadena police talked with a person who repairs fuel pumps who said his company had been inundated with calls since the beginning of June, a new release said. Some suspects were arrested while allegedly stealing the gasoline, the release said. Others were caught on surveillance tape.


The state unemployment rate fell one-tenth of a percentage point in July to five percent. The Texas Workforce Commission reports today that nonagricultural employment increased by 12,600 jobs in July. That's the 11th straight month of job growth. The unemployment rate in July 2004 was 6.1 percent. According to the U. S. Labor Department, the nation's unemployment rate held at five percent for the second month in a row--the lowest point in nearly four years. Texas employers have added 100,000 jobs over the year, for an annual growth rate of 1.1 percent. Eight of nine industry sectors reported job growth for the year, with government losing 1,200 jobs. About 563,500 Texans are unemployed--not counting those who have stopped looking for work. Last July, about 669,000 Texans were out of work. Houston's rate dropped to 5.3 from last month's 5.5 percent. There were 69,784 initial claims for unemployment compensation for July 2005, down 0.2 percent from June and 15.2 percent from July 2004.


Hopes faded yesterday that the Coastal Bend would be the new home of a Navy master jet base. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was not granted a slot at a Base Closure and Realignment Commission hearing scheduled on Saturday. Officials touting Florida's Cecil Field as a location for the 254-jet base were invited. The commission is to make its decision on closing the current base, Virginia's Naval Station Oceana, next week. U. S. Representative Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi says they were told that it was only for the East Coast and they were not contemplating Texas. BRAC spokesman Robert McCreary says the Navy has a West Coast base and wanted to keep an East Coast base, too. Coastal Bend officials are fighting against the recommended closure of Naval Station Ingleside.


Amarillo has earmarked $27 million to support Bell Helicopter Textron building an assembly unit for presidential helicopters. The Amarillo City Commission approved the economic development project. Bell spokesman Roger Williams says the company could build as many as 19 Marine One helicopters. Since 1998, the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation has given Bell about $90 million--all generated by sales tax revenue. Now, with the Marine One program, Bell hopes to secure other civilian and military contracts. Because of the high security standards, the facility that builds Marine One will stand alone, but adjacent to existing Bell facilities.


Baker Hughes in Houston today reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U. S. rose by four this week--to reach 1,433. One year ago the rig count was 1,230. Texas gained five rigs.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...