A lawyer representing the widow of man who claims that Merck & Co.’s Vioxx caused her husband’s death called the link between the pain reliever and heart attacks the company’s “dirty little secret.”

Andy Birchfield told jurors in his opening statement in the first federal trial concerning Vioxx safety that Richard “Dicky” Irvin was a strong, healthy man who had never missed a day of work.

“There was nothing that would have triggered a fatal heart attack except for Vioxx,” the attorney said as he laid out a time-line intended to show that Merck knew Vioxx was dangerous long before it pulled the drug from the market last year.

The case pits the widow of Mr. Irvin, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, against Merck, which has scored a loss in Texas and a win in its home turf of New Jersey in the first two state-level Vioxx cases.

Earlier, the court selected a jury of five men and four women—three of those alternates—to determine whether the one-time blockbuster drug caused Mr. Irwin’s fatal heart attack in May 2001. The 53-year-old manager of a wholesale seafood distributor in St. Augustine, Fla., had been taking the drug for about a month to alleviate back pain when his co-workers found him dead at his desk.

The New Jersey-based Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after a long-term study showed the drug doubled risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. By then, more than 20 million Americans had used Vioxx.

Mr. Birchfield, who spoke for less than an hour, noted that Merck likes to cherry pick the 18-month hallmark to demonstrate that the drug could not have caused problems in patients who took it for a shorter time. But he told jurors a study showed Vioxx can cause problems after just seven days.

He said that Merck knew about Vioxx’s safety problems before it was launched in 1999. Mr. Birchfield quoted from internal emails, including some from Merck scientists who raised warning flags about its cardiovascular risks, to support his assertions.

Merck made a “premeditated, financial decision” not to warn patients about the drug’s risks because it wanted the revenue the former $2.5 billion seller would generate, and longed to beat Pfizer Inc.’s competing drug Celebrex in the marketplace, he said.

Mr. Birchfield also said Mr. Irvin had 60% blockage in an artery, but that wouldn’t have been enough to cause a heart attack. Mr. Birchfield conceded that Mr. Irvin wasn’t examined before taking Vioxx; he first used a sample given to him by a friend and then asked his son-in-law, a physician, to write him a prescription. The attorney said an exam wouldn’t have made any difference because a doctor would have given him Vioxx if asked.

Merck’s attorneys are yet to present their opening statement. But the company’s court filings indicate Merck’s defense will center on whether Vioxx could be responsible for Mr. Irvin’s death when he took the painkiller for such a short time.

The court took roughly two hours to choose the panel of six jurors, which is common in most federal civil cases. The case before U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans is in Houston rather than its original venue of New Orleans because of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The company faces about 7,000 state and federal lawsuits and analysts have estimated its liability could reach $50 billion.

We're here to help!

We live by our creed of "helping those who need it most" and have helped thousands of clients get the justice they desperately needed and deserved. If you feel you have a case or just have questions please contact us for a free consultation. There is no risk and no fees unless we win for you.

Fields marked    may be required for submission.
  1. I'm an attorney

Merck to pay $830 million to settle investors’ Vioxx...

Merck announced Friday it will pay $830 million to settle investor complaints accusing it of committing...

Merck to pay nearly $1 billion for illegal marketing...

American pharmaceutical company Merck, Sharp & Dohme has agreed to pay $950 million to resolve criminal...

Merck paying more than 3,100 vioxx death claims

Merck & Co. is paying claims by the families of more than 3,100 users of its Vioxx painkiller who...

Settlement limits insurers' claims in Vioxx deal

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Former Vioxx users getting part of a $4.85 billion settlement ending most personal...

Persistence pays in Vioxx litigation

Plaintiffs get close to $5B, but Merck could have done a lot worse. Attorneys who spent nearly one year...

Vioxx settlement payments to begin in August

Merck & Co., manufacturer of Vioxx, announced it will make the first payment of $500 million on Aug....

Best firm by far

Our case was handled with the utmost integrity and professionalism. If I could give them 10 stars, I would. This is the best legal firm I have ever dealt with by far.