Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott applauded a ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin that returns the state’s lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. to state district court in Austin instead of federal court in New Orleans.

Abbott says he will promptly seek a date for a state jury trial to determine the damages Merck owes the state of Texas for allegedly failing to point out what it knew to be the dangers of the painkilling drug Vioxx, even as the company offered the drug to Medicaid patients at state expense.

“This ruling affirms what we have sought from the beginning—for this lawsuit to be tried in a Texas court before a Texas jury,” Abbott says.

On Aug. 4, the company asked Judge Yeakel to send the lawsuit to federal court, and then to New Orleans, where hundreds of Vioxx-related cases against Merck wait to be heard.

Abbott filed a motion to keep the case in state court, a request the judge granted this week.

The Attorney General filed the original lawsuit in June, allegingthe company deliberately misled the state about the drug’s high risk in causing heart problems.

According to the lawsuit, the company’s repeated failure to disclose the adverse effects of Vioxx, while offering it to the state’s Medicaid program as a safe painkiller, directly violates the Texas Medicaid Fraud Prevention Act.

Abbott’s suit requests restitution to the state of Texas, plus interest, for all Medicaid payments made to the company for Vioxx prescriptions.

The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties.

The Texas Medicaid program reimbursed pharmacists $56 million for Vioxx prescriptions they filled for patients over a five-year period.

The Attorney General is invoking a provision in state law that allows for that amount to be automatically tripled to $168 million, which Merck would have to pay to the state of Texas if it loses.

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