Rallying from its first Vioxx trial loss, pharmaceutical giant Merck (MRK) on Thursday won the second court showdown over its controversial painkiller. But while the win provided a one-day stock price jump, it’s unclear whether the nation’s third-largest drugmaker will prevail in what financial analysts and lawyers said shapes up to be a protracted legal war.
On the third day of deliberations, a New Jersey state court jury found Merck not liable for the non-fatal heart attack suffered by an Idaho postal worker who used the drug. The verdict marked a turnabout from the first Vioxx trial in Texas, where jurors returned a $253 million verdict against Merck in August.
Financial analysts and lawyers preparing other Vioxx cases said the opposing outcomes likely mean a string of trials will take place before a victor emerges.
“There’s no pattern yet. This is a blip on the radar screen,” said Daniel Becnel, the co-lead plaintiff lawyer in Vioxx cases consolidated with a federal judge in Texas.
Merck, however, cast the verdict as vindication of its view that it acted properly in selling Vioxx until the September 2004 withdrawal prompted by a clinical study that showed the drug could double the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“It really underscores what we’ve always believed passionately at Merck, that we did the right thing,” said Kenneth Frazier, the firm’s general counsel.
After the verdict, Merck’s shares closed up $1.07, or 3.8%, Thursday at $29.48.
David Moskowitz of Friedman Billings Ramsey said in a report that Merck’s win could discourage a flood of new cases. Raymond James analyst Michael Krensavage said the verdict could cause weaker cases “to fall by the wayside.”
Frazier, contending “the science was on our side,” said the firm would not “roll over” and accept a mass settlement in the more than 6,400 cases filed by those who say they or relatives were Vioxx victims. Merck is talking to regulators about possible resumption of Vioxx sales, he said.
“It is our firm intent to try each one of these cases as they come up,” said Frazier.
That strategy produced a win in the New Jersey case, where jurors rejected 60-year-old Frederick Humeston’s charge that Vioxx caused his heart attack in 2001. They decided Merck had issued proper warnings about the drug’s risks.
Juror Vickie Heintz, 40, told the Associated Press that evidence showed Humeston had “too many other health issues” that could have led to a heart attack.
In contrast, Merck was found liable in Texas for the May 2001 death of Robert Ernst. The 59-year-old, who ran daily, died of an irregular heartbeat while taking Vioxx. Merck is appealing the verdict.
Merck’s next challenge is the Nov. 29 scheduled federal court trial over the death of Richard Irvin. He died in 2001 after taking Vioxx for about a month. Family lawyer Andy Birchfield said he feels the case against Merck is strong.