Montgomery lawyer Jere Beasley has to be smiling this week, and it’s not necessarily because a Houston, Texas jury deadlocked, causing a mistrial in the first federal court trial against Merck, the huge drug maker, his firm is suing on behalf of a Florida woman who’s husband died after taking the recalled drug Vioxx.
The previous two lawsuits against Merck where before state court juries. The giant drug company won one and lost the other. In state and federal courts, more than 6,000 people have sued Merck, claimin they or their family members were injuerd or killed after taking Vioxx.
It is rather because the day before the Houston jury began deliberations, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine accused Merck of withholding key heart risk data that showed up in one of the first large trials of the arthritis painkiller. This is additional testimony Beasley and Andy Birchfield of the Montgomery firm will be able to use against Merck. This case filed by the Beasley firm was considered one of the weakest in the thousands filed against Merck across the nation.
“Most people watching this litigation closely thought that Merck ought to win it,” Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond told The New York Times. “Despite the characterizations by Merck so far, I think this was really a loss for them.”
Dr. Gregory D. Curfman, executive editor of the journal wrote: “We have very solid evidence that important data on cardiac events was deleted or withheld, which rendered the study of suboptimal quality.”
Curfman also told the media that in addition to disk deletions “other data relating to strokes and peripheral vascular events had also been withheld. It would have given a more complete picture of the risks of Vioxx which would have made the data more worrisome,” he said.
Forbes.com says that in the study, published in 2000 by the journal, ten of the 12 authors were listed as having received clinical research support from Merck. One of the authors, Dr. Alise Relcin, worked for Merck and is now its vice president for clinical research. She has been the lead witness for Merck in the three cases tried to date. In the Houston trial she testified that Merck had never mislead doctors or the public about studies linking heart problems with Vioxx. Vioxx was taken off the market in September of 2004 after research showed that long-term use of the drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The study called into question by the journal was named VIGOR (Vioxx Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research). According to Forbes it was frequently cited by Merck in the Houston trial and elsewhere as proof of the safety of Vioxx. The study involved 8,076 patients in 22 countries. The journal editors said they first became aware of the missing data in 2001, when updated data was made available by the Food and Drug Administration. At the time they didn’t think the authors had known about the research problems when they prepared the article for the journal.
However, during the Houston trial the Beasley team deposed Curfman and, according to Forbes, during the course of that deposition the journal’s editor became aware of a memo that indicated at least two of three of the VIGOR authors knew of the problems at least two weeks before submitting the first of two revisions, and over four months prior to publication of the study.
Further investigation revealed that the authors had originally known about the deleted data. The journal has asked the authors to submit a correction.
Beasley, whose firm has filed hundreds of lawsuits against Merck, said he is looking forward to the next trial. “You can’t lie to publications like the New England Journal of Medicine and get away with it,” he said Wednesday. The jurors in the Houston trial were never made aware of the announcement by the journal editors since it came after the jury had already begun deliberations.
The deceptions by Merck and a recent New York Times article about how drug companies hire college cheerleaders as drug reps in an attempt to seduce doctors into prescribing their products, is a sad commentary on the corporate drug makers.
We need the drug manufacturers to be strong and profitable in order that we may have the best medicines available for treatment. But when corporate greed interferes with the safety of their products it is time for policy makers to start thinking about regulating the industry’s profit margins similar to the way utilities are regulated.
The last defense patients have against companies like Merck is the integrity of their physicians and lawyers like Beasley who have the resources to battle billion-dollar corporations like Merck.
As a personal note, I was fortunate to have a doctor treating my hypertension four years ago who advised me to stop taking cox-2 inhibitors like Vioxx. His name is Dr. Michael Broder who was recommended to me by my podiatrist, Dr. Allen Stern. I am thankful to both of them.