Merck & Co. completed a speedy defense presentation in the first federal Vioxx trial after calling to testify just four witnesses over two days.
The Whitehouse Station, N.J., company called to the stand a rheumatologist, two company scientists and a pathologist to try to counter two prongs of the plaintiff’s allegations: that Merck knew Vioxx could cause heart attacks and strokes and took steps to conceal the information, and that Vioxx had a hand in the 2001 fatal heart attack of Richard “Dicky” Irvin. Lawyers for both sides will present closing statements today.
Merck’s defense team, headed by Philip S. Beck, sought to establish that there is no conclusive evidence that Vioxx, when used in the short term, causes heart problems. On Monday and Tuesday, a rheumatologist told jurors that Vioxx was an effective painkiller that protected patients from dangerous stomach bleeding. David Silver, associate professor at University of California at Los Angeles, said that the benefits of Vioxx outweighed its risks. Merck lawyers also showed jurors an April 2005 memorandum from a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that concluded that when taken in low doses in the short term, the class of drugs to which Vioxx belongs don’t appear to elevate the risk for heart problems.
Mr. Irvin’s widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, is suing Merck, alleging that Vioxx caused her then-husband’s fatal heart attack. He took the drug for less than a month to treat back pain. The company withdrew the drug last year after a study linked Vioxx to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients taking the drug for 18 months or longer. Merck lost the first state Vioxx trial a few months ago after a Texas jury awarded $253 million to the widow of a man who died while taking Vioxx. The drug maker won a case heard in an Atlantic City, N.J. courtroom last month.
In what some lawyers following the case said was a surprising move, Merck didn’t call a cardiologist to testify in the case here. In the two prior state cases, cardiologists testified for Merck that Vioxx wasn’t the cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries.
Merck’s final witness, Thomas Wheeler, a pathologist from Baylor College of Medicine, told jurors that Mr. Irvin had blocked arteries and was “skating on thin ice.” He said that he didn’t believe Vioxx prompted a plaque rupture that led to his fatal heart attack. On cross-examination, an attorney for the plaintiff pointed out that Dr. Wheeler isn’t an expert in cardiopathology and that Mr. Irvin’s autopsy report said his arteriosclerosis was “moderate.”
Earlier, an attorney for the plaintiff cross-examined Merck executive Alise Reicin about a 2001 FDA report that challenged Merck’s interpretation of Vioxx safety data, which said Merck’s analysis “has serious methodological limitations.” Dr. Reicin said that Merck appropriately reviewed and analyzed the data.