A doctor told jurors yesterday in the nation’s first Vioxx-related civil trial that he believes the drug contributed to the death of a Texas man, 59, who had an arrhythmia linked to a heart attack in 2001.

“His taking of Vioxx caused and/or contributed to his heart attack,” Dr. David Egilman said in a direct challenge to Vioxx maker Merck & Co.’s assertion that it has no relation to irregular heartbeats.

Carol Ernst, the widow of Robert Ernst, is the plaintiff in the first of more than 4,200 state and federal lawsuits across the country to go before a jury.

Egilman, a public health professor at Brown University, also testified that he resisted prescribing Vioxx at his former family practice clinic in Braintree, Mass., because he disputed Merck’s assertion that the painkiller was safe years before the drug was pulled.

Merck voluntarily took Vioxx off the market in September when a study showed it could double heart attack or stroke risk if taken for 18 months or longer, but the firm argues heart attack and arrhythmia aren’t interchangeable.

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A special thanks to your law firm and staff for all the work done on the Vioxx case. The settlement could not have come at a better time for my family and myself. I thank you for a job well done!