NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – The lawyer for a former FBI agent told a jury that Vioxx caused his client’s heart attack and the blockbuster drug’s maker Merck & Co Inc. ignored danger signs from its withdrawn pain medicine as the second federal trial opened in New Orleans on Monday.
Merck’s lawyer said former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Jerry Barnett, 62, was at risk of heart attack without the drug due to high cholesterol, a family history of cardiac problems, and cardiovascular disease, and that the company had thoroughly tested Vioxx.
Barnett, who was sitting in the first row of the gallery, not beside his lawyer in the well, used the withdrawn arthritis medicine longer than any previous plaintiff in a Vioxx product liability lawsuit.
The result of the case before U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon may signal future outcomes in many of some 14,200 lawsuits Merck is facing, since it centers on a man who used the drug for a substantial period of time.
Merck pulled Vioxx, which generated $2.5 billion-a-year in sales, from the market in September 2004 after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in those who took it for at least 18 months.
Barnett began taking pain relievers after an auto accident in 1978 and switched to Vioxx in January 2000.
His attorney, Mark Robinson, said Barnett exercised, ate well and followed his doctor’s orders to the letter, including taking Vioxx daily for 31 months before the heart attack.
“He had a premature heart attack that should not have happened,” Robinson said in opening remarks. Merck had not studied the safety of the drug as well as it should have, he said.
“The real study they did was on the American public taking the drug,” he added.
Earlier in July, a New Jersey state court jury found for Merck when it decided a host of other risk factors and not Vioxx caused the heart attack of a 68-year-old grandmother who had sued.
That jury also found that Merck gave adequate warning of Vioxx risks to the plaintiff’s physician but not the patient.
Merck has won four of the seven Vioxx trials that have been completed, including the first federal trial.
“Heart attacks are a huge problem in the United States,” Merck lawyer Phil Beck said in his opening remarks, arguing that Barnett was like many others who had seen plaque build up in blood vessels, clogging the arteries, for years before taking Vioxx. The reasons were genetic, he argued.
“That’s just the way he is made,” said Beck.
Barnett took Vioxx for 55 months, from January 2000 to September 2004, when Vioxx was pulled from the market, and had a heart attack after 31 months of use. His lawyer said he may have had a second heart attack, which Beck called “pure litigation concoction.”
Beck said that Merck’s dedication to patients was illustrated by its quick action, pulling the drug after results of the crucial study were returned.
Merck has repeatedly insisted it will defend itself on a case by case basis and has so far not wavered in the face of calls for settlement talks. The current trial is expected to last two-to-three weeks.