The now-recalled painkiller Vioxx is one of the most notorious dangerous drugs from recent years. The drug had to be taken off the market after studies showed it increased users’ risk of heart attacks, and many of those users have filed lawsuits against Merck, the drug’s manufacturer, seeking compensation for their serious injuries or the wrongful death of a loved one. So I was interested, as a defective drug attorney, to see a court ruling out of Arkansas about how the proceeds of such a lawsuit might be split in an unusual family situation. In Bridges v. Shields, Curtis Bridges claimed a portion of the proceeds of a lawsuit filed by his deceased wife’s children on behalf of a previous stepfather who died after taking Vioxx. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Bridges had no claim because the wife, Hazel Mae Frazier, had no claim.
Frazier had been married three times and had seven children. Her second husband, Elree Frazier, died in 2001 after taking Vioxx, leaving only her and her seven children, Elree Frazier’s stepchildren. Frazier eventually married Curtis Bridges, but died herself in 2007. After her death, one of her children, Glen Shields, filed a wrongful death claim against Merck on behalf of the estate of Elree Frazier and eventually settled for a bit under 124,000. The money was funneled into the estate of Hazel Mae Frazier for distribution to her seven children; it was the only asset. Shields successfully petitioned to be made administrator of his mother’s estate as well. Bridges then filed a claim in trial court for one-third of the money in the estate, based on his interest as her husband (curtesy interest), which Shields opposed. After much analysis, the court found for Shields, ruling that Bridges had no curtesy interest in the money because Frazier’s estate was only a conduit.
The Arkansas Supreme Court agreed. Because Frazier was not alive when the Merck lawsuit took place, she clearly did not possess the proceeds at the time of her death. Thus, the important question was whether Frazier’s right to sue Merck was a property right that became part of the estate. Under state law, the trial court found, Frazier had a chose in action — a property right to sue — when she died, but was not possessed of the proceeds of the Merck lawsuit. The high court disagreed, finding that Frazier did not have a chose in action. Arkansas law requires that a wrongful death action be brought by the administrator of the deceased’s estate — in the case of Elree Frazier, this was Glen Shields — or by all heirs together. Thus, Frazier had no individual right to bring an action, and thus no chose in action. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling denying Bridges any part of the Merck settlement.
As a dangerous drug lawyer, I urge other families that have lost someone to a Vioxx injury to move quickly to enforce their rights. Every state has a law called the statute of limitations, which is a deadline after which you may sue. It’s generally two to five years except under special circumstances — and drug companies will make every argument they can think of to convince a court that no exceptions should apply. Thus, the quicker you file your suit, the better your chances of recovering fair compensation. This was not an issue in this case, because the dispute was over the disposition of the settlement proceeds. But as a pharmaceutical liability attorney, I’ve seen courts turn down otherwise meritorious cases that are past the state of limitations, and I’d rather that injured people get their day in court.
If you believe a dangerous drug caused a death or serious injury or illness in your family, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. For a free, confidential consultation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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