Merck & Co., which introduced its first witness in the Vioxx wrongful-death trial in Angleton, Texas, now must overcome the emotional impact of the testimony of the widow of Robert Ernst, and convince jurors that causes other than Vioxx were likely to have led to his death. 

Carol Ernst, the plaintiff, testified that her husband, a 59-year-old athlete, showed no signs of heart problems until he died in May 2001. While jurors watched attentively, Ms. Ernst, who said she hardly sleeps at night since his death, cried several times during her testimony, in which she said her husband was a healthy eater and regular runner.

Under cross-examination from defense lawyer Gerry Lowry, Ms. Ernst said her husband had complained of an odd pulse earlier in the day. He had gone running in mid-afternoon, and after he returned, “He said, ‘I don’t know what it was, just for a second there, it kind of felt funny,’ ” Ms. Ernst said on the stand.

Ms. Lowry noted that Mr. Ernst was a former smoker, but Ms. Ernst said her husband hadn’t smoked in more than 15 years.

Testifying for Merck was Alan Nies, a Merck senior vice president of clinical sciences who ran the Vioxx project development team but who now is retired. He said Merck acted responsibly in its development of Vioxx, and the Food and Drug Administration had thought Merck’s clinical testing of Vioxx was adequate. His testimony is set to continue today.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September after a company-sponsored study found people who took the drug daily for more than 18 months had a higher risk of heart attacks or strokes. Mr. Ernst’s death certificate says he died from an arrhythmia—an irregular heart beat—but Mark Lanier, the plaintiff’s lawyer, has argued that a heart attack linked to Vioxx led to the arrhythmia that killed him. A medical examiner who wrote the report on Mr. Ernst’s death said earlier in the trial in a deposition that it was likely that a heart attack led to the arrhythmia.

Mr. Ernst had been taking the drug daily for eight months before he died. Merck of Whitehouse Station, N.J., maintains that there isn’t a connection between Vioxx and arrhythmias.

“There’s going to be a sympathy factor,” said Edward Sherman, a law professor at Tulane University Law School who specializes in complex litigation.

Merck lawyer Jonathan Skidmore said the company will “put on proven and reliable scientific evidence as to the development of the drug and the causation issues in this case.”



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