LOS ANGELES- Closing arguments in California’s first trial over the painkiller Vioxx wrapped Tuesday, leaving jurors the task of deciding whether Merck’s once-popular drug caused an elderly man’s heart attack.
Superior Court by Judge Victoria G. Chaney gave the jury guidelines for deliberating and released them with instructions to return Wednesday morning to begin deliberations.
The lawsuit was brought by Stewart Grossberg, 71, who began taking Vioxx in 1999 to manage joint pain in his knees, hands and elsewhere caused by osteoarthritis.
Grossberg blames a 2001 heart attack on Vioxx and is seeking damages on grounds that the company was negligent and failed to warn users of the drug, among other allegations.
Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck & Co. claims Vioxx had no role in Grossberg’s heart ailments.
Merck has won four Vioxx cases and lost three. Another trial began in U.S. District Court this week in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Merck and Grossberg sought to distill their major points for jurors, who spent a month hearing from some 20 witnesses, many of them medical experts, researchers and others, whose testimony often covered complex details of pharmacology and medical statistics.
Merck attorney Tarek Ismail told jurors they should reject the claim that Vioxx caused Grossberg’s heart attack or accelerated his heart disease, saying Grossberg had a long history of heart disease before he took the drug.
Ismail cited testimony from a pharmacist who reviewed Grossberg’s records that showed he had three prescriptions of 30 Vioxx pills each in the two years before his heart attack in September 2001.
Ismail said Grossberg, at most, was a sporadic Vioxx user.
“Mr. Grossberg had heart disease for years and that heart disease started years before he had his first Vioxx pill,” Ismail said.
Earlier, Grossberg’s attorney, Thomas Girardi, argued that Merck knew the drug caused heightened risk of heart ailments but sought to mislead physicians and market Vioxx anyway.
“Where we sit is, there is no question according to their own documents, that Vioxx causes heart attack and stroke,” Girardi told jurors.
Girardi implored the jury to set an example for other drug companies by returning a verdict in favor of his client.
“This case is far greater than Mr. Stewart Grossberg,” Girardi said. “What if one company out there based upon what you do says, ‘We’d like to think this through. We don’t want to hurt anyone?’”
The drug maker faces more than 16,000 lawsuits involving Vioxx, which was pulled from the market in 2004 after a study found that it increased the risk of heart attacks.
More than 2,000 Vioxx lawsuits filed in California have been consolidated in Los Angeles by Chaney.
The outcome of the case is expected to serve as a guide for navigating through other California cases involving Vioxx.
Grossberg, who has regularly attended the trial, took the stand briefly last month.
“I used Vioxx for a number of years,” Grossberg told jurors, adding he only took the painkiller “as needed,” not every day.
He detailed how he took the painkiller during a pain flare-up, suffering a heart attack a few weeks later that he said forced him to take a break from his job as a construction site supervisor.
Doctors placed a stent in one of his arteries and he was eventually released from the hospital and put on medication to reduce his lipid levels.
Two years later, Grossberg resumed taking Vioxx, but in late August 2004 decided to cease doing so after hearing about problems with the painkiller. Three months later, he suffered angina, or chest pains, and underwent a second stent placement.
Doctors found that his right coronary artery had a 95 percent high-grade lesion. Plaque buildup was also present in other blood vessels _ areas that had been normal in 2001.
Medical experts who testified for Merck told jurors Grossberg had pre-existing health factors that led to his heart problems, including a history of heart disease in his family, elevated cholesterol, poor diet and exercise habits and years spent as a smoker.
Among findings the jury will be asked to determine are whether Merck was negligent and whether Vioxx was a substantial factor in Grossberg’s heart attack.
Grossberg’s medical bills total more than $214,000. He is also seeking damages for pain and suffering. Jurors also may decide to award punitive damages.