An attorney tells an L.A. jury that the drug maker hid risks. The firm says the painkiller was not to blame for the patient’s heart problems.

Merck & Co. showed a “careless disregard” for users of the painkiller Vioxx, a lawyer for a construction manager suing the company told jurors Tuesday in the first California trial over the drug.

Merck knew Vioxx would cause “massive, terrible side effects and they didn’t tell anybody,” attorney Thomas Girardi said in opening statements in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He said his client, Stewart Grossberg, 71, survived a heart attack after taking more than 200 Vioxx pills over two years.

“The real issue is a moral issue,” Girardi told jurors. “They absolutely, positively, without a doubt knew they were going to harm a bunch of people and they said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Merck, the fourth-largest U.S. drug maker, faces about 12,000 Vioxx suits nationwide, including 2,100 cases in California. The Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company has lost three verdicts since August totaling $298 million, an amount that will be cut to $48 million by state damage caps.

Grossberg, a widower, began taking Vioxx for arthritis in July 1999 and used the drug daily until his heart attack in September 2001, his lawyer said.

Merck denies that Vioxx was to blame for the heart attack, arguing that it was triggered by risk factors including Grossberg’s age, family history of premature heart disease, stress and high cholesterol.

“Like so many Americans before him, Mr. Grossberg has heart disease, and the evidence will show he had heart disease before he ever took a single dose of Vioxx,” Merck attorney Tarek Ismail told jurors. “Vioxx in fact played no role in Mr. Grossberg’s heart attack.”

Grossberg had no history of heart attacks, wasn’t overweight and got exercise on the job, Girardi argued. Grossberg’s doctor, Richard Shaw, hadn’t heard warnings about Vioxx when he first prescribed the drug in 1999 or when he resumed prescriptions in 2003, the lawyer said. Grossberg took an additional 250 pills until late 2004, when he experienced symptoms of another heart attack, Girardi said.

“They did everything they could to hide this stuff from doctors,” Girardi said.

Merck sent Shaw a personal letter in June 2000, more than a year before Grossberg’s heart attack, in response to his queries about Vioxx’s cardiovascular risks, Ismail said in his opening statement. The letter explained the results of a clinical trial, known as Vigor, that showed Vioxx caused five times more heart attacks than another painkiller, naproxen.

Grossberg’s use of the drug was intermittent, Ismail said. He told jurors that medical records showed Grossberg took Vioxx for a few days at a time and then would go weeks, or even months, before taking it again.

“There’s no data that shows infrequent use of Vioxx raises the risk of heart attacks,” Ismail said.

The trial is expected to last six weeks. A trial in Atlantic City, N.J., may go to the jury as early as Friday.

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