Texas jury gets federal Merck Vioxx case

posted on:
December 8, 2005

author:
Matt Daily

The jury in the first federal case against drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc.’s Vioxx adjourned on Thursday after deliberating for about two hours over whether the painkiller contributed to a Florida man’s death.

Lawyers concluded their closing arguments earlier in the day in the case, which is the third of more than 7,000 lawsuits filed against Merck on account of Vioxx.

The nine-member jury will resume deliberations on Friday morning.

The trial hinges on whether Vioxx helped cause the heart attack that led to the 2001 death of Richard “Dicky” Irvin, Jr. The 53-year-old Florida man had taken the drug for less than a month.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after a study showed use of the drug for 18 months increased patients’ risk of heart attack and stroke.

Lawyers for Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck argued that Irvin, a manager at a seafood distribution center, died after plaque in his arteries broke loose and caused a blockage that triggered his heart attack.

“Whatever anybody else thinks, Vioxx did not cause Mr. Irvin’s death. What caused Mr. Irvin’s death was the same things that the leading cause of death in the United States for men of Mr. Irvin’s age,” Merck lawyer Phil Beck said in closing arguments.

The withdrawal of the drug, which was ultimately taken by more than 20 million people and generated more than $2.5 billion in sales for Merck in 2004, contributed to a $25 billion decline in the company’s market capitalization.

Lawyers fro Irvin’s widow said the company knew about the cardiovascular risks of the drug long before it pulled the drug off the market. The widow asked for more than $400,000 in actual damages, but a lawyer declined to put a figure on damages for pain and suffering.

The plaintiff’s co-lead attorney Andy Birchfield, told the jury Merck rushed Vioxx to market because it needed to generate revenue as its other drugs lost patent protection and faced competition from generic drug makers.

“They were looking to Vioxx to fill the gap,” he said. “The risks were known and they were known early on.”

Merck prevailed in a case tried in New Jersey last month when a jury found it not liable in a case brought by a 60-year-old postal worker who had taken the drug for two months.

However, a Texas widow won the first case against the company when a jury ruled in August the company was at fault in the death of her husband. The jury awarded her $253 million in compensatory and punitive damages, although that amount is likely to be trimmed to about $26 million because of Texas limitations on damage awards.

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