Merck & Co. Inc. rushed the painkiller Vioxx to market despite knowing its potential health dangers, an attorney said on Monday in opening arguments of the latest lawsuit charging that the popular drug caused someone to die.

Merck’s lawyer countered that heart disease, not Vioxx, killed Richard Irvin, a 53-year-old Floridian who died in 2001 after taking the drug for less than a month.

The arguments came in the retrial of a case that ended in a mistrial in December when one member of a nine-person jury felt Merck was liable for the death and a unanimous verdict could not be reached.

More than 9,000 lawsuits have been filed against Merck claiming it hid health risks linked to Vioxx.

The company recalled Vioxx, which had been popular with arthritis sufferers, in September 2004 after it was shown to double heart attack and stroke risks for those who took it at least 18 months.

Andy Birchfield, an attorney for Irvin’s family, told the New Orleans jury that Merck knew from clinical trials the dangers of Vioxx, but wanted to beat its competitors to market with the painkiller.

“Merck ignored the early warning signs and they pushed forward with this drug,” he said. “They played fast and loose with the science.”

But Merck lawyer Philip Beck disagreed.

“Merck acted responsibly with it developed and tested Vioxx. Vioxx had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Irvin’s death,” he said.

Irvin, he said, died because he had blocked arteries, which led to a fatal heart attack.

This case is the first of the Vioxx lawsuits to be tried in federal court. It was originally tried in Houston after Hurricane Katrina temporarily closed the federal courts in New Orleans.

Two others cases have been completed in state courts, with Merck winning one in New Jersey and losing one in Texas, where the widow of a 59-year-old Vioxx user was awarded $253 million in damages. Merck is appealing.

Analysts have said the company’s legal costs to fight the lawsuits could total several billions of dollars.



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