Whether the maker of Vioxx withheld information about the drug’s risks was the point of opening statements Wednesday in a crowded Madison County courtroom.

"Merck oversold and under warned," said Andy Birchfield, an attorney representing Granite City widower Frank Schwaller in his lawsuit against the maker of Vioxx.

Said Merck attorney Dan Ball: "This case is not about if this family sustained a loss. This trial is about if it’s fair and if it’s right to blame the people of Merck for this tragedy."

Schwaller contends the arthritis drug caused his wife, Patricia, to suffer a fatal heart attack in 2003 at age 52. She had taken the medicine for 20 months. Schwaller claims Merck had adequate warning of the risk before it took Vioxx off the market and before his wife started taking the drug in 2000. Vioxx was taken off the market by Merck in September 2004.

Defense attorney Stephen Strauss has said Merck acted responsibly, that the company carefully studied Vioxx prior to its approval, and that it monitored the medicine while it was on the market, and that it voluntarily withdrew the medicine in 2004.

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

Birchfield is a member of the Beasley Allen Law Firm in Alabama, and is working in partnership with Brown & Crouppen of St. Louis

Thousands of Vioxx lawsuits have been filed nationwide, but this case is believed to be the first to go to trial in the Midwest. As of 2006, more than 4,025 claims related to Vioxx had been dismissed before being scheduled for trial. On the 20 plaintiffs whose claims were scheduled for trial, seven were dismissed, seven were withdrawn, and nine were found in Merck’s favor and four in the plaintiff’s favor.

About 20 million people took the drug before tests showed it caused an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. Merck withdrew the drug after a study showed the potential danger.

Information for this story was also contributed by reporter Maria Baran.

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