The Garza family faces off against Merck this week in a Texas border town, in the fourth lawsuit to blame Vioxx, the market-pulled painkiller, for causing heart attacks.

The family of Leonel Garza, 71, sued Merck and blames Vioxx for Garza’s fatal heart attack in 2001. Jury selection begins on Tuesday, at a state court in Rio Grande City, a town of 12,000 in Starr County near the border with Mexico. Judge Alex Galbert will preside over the case, held in 229th judicial district court.

Nearly 10,000 lawsuits have been filed against Merck, following the withdrawal of Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30, 2004. Merck (down $0.19 to $33.06, Research), based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., pulled Vioxx, an arthritis painkiller, off the market after a study showed an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients using the drug for at least 18 months.

Garza was given a one-week supply of Vioxx 25 mg samples for pain in his arm about one month before his death on April 21, 2001, according to Merck. Merck also said that Garza had a 23-year history of heart disease and had survived one heart attack prior to taking Vioxx.

Ted Mayer of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, outside counsel for Merck, said in a recent press release that “there is no reliable scientific evidence that Vioxx caused Mr. Garza’s heart attack. At the time of Mr. Garza’s heart attack, he exhibited numerous major risk factors for coronary artery disease.”

Repeated calls for comment by CNNMoney were not returned by Hockema, Tippit & Escobedo, the Texas firm representing the Garza family.

This will be the third trial to be held in Texas, and its outcome could be seen as a tie-breaker in the ongoing series of suits against Merck.

The most recent trial, the Plunkett v. Merck wrongful death case, ended in a hung jury on Dec. 13, 2005 in a federal court in Houston under U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon, has been scheduled for retrial on Feb. 6. The retrial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 6 in New Orleans, the original seat of Fallon’s court before it was displaced by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Evelyn Irvin Plunkett of St. Augustine, Fla., sued Merck for the 2001 death of her husband Richard Irvin, who took the drug for one month before his fatal heart attack. The jury was unable to reach a verdict. Right after the non-sequestered jury began deliberations, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial reporting that Merck had deleted information regarding Vioxx-related deaths from a study it provided to the journal in 2000.

Merck denied the claim, but plaintiff lawyer Jere Beasley said it undermines the credibility of Merck’s key witness Alise Reicin, the company’s vice president of clinical research.



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