By L.M. Sixel of The Houston Chronicle
Telling jurors their decision will have “far-reaching consequences for how drug companies conduct their business,” the attorney for a woman who believes her husband’s short-term use of Vioxx caused his death asked the panel to send Merck a message.
“If Merck simply warned of the dangers, we wouldn’t be here,” Andy Birchfield told the jury during closing arguments. “You have the power to make a difference.”
The jury, which deliberated for two hours this afternoon before breaking for the day, is trying to determine whether the drug maker should be held responsible for the death of Richard “Dicky” Irvin.
The 53-year-old manager of a wholesale seafood shop in St. Augustine, Fla., died in May 2001 after taking Vioxx for less than a month for back pain.
His widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, sued the giant drug company, which yanked the painkiller from the market in September 2004 after a study showed that it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who took it for 18 months or longer.
In his instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon told the panel not to consider Merck’s voluntary withdrawal of the drug in its deliberations.
Merck attorney Phil Beck told the jury in his closing arguments that Merck believed Irvin’s short-term use of Vioxx played no role in his death.
Instead, plaque in his arteries ruptured and formed a blood clot, which happens to 300,000 to 400,000 people every year, Beck said.
“Not one witness said Vioxx could cause plaque rupture,” he said.
Beck said that Merck exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements by doing more than the required number of drug trials, which involved more people and were longer then required. He said there were 128 clinical trials in all.
Testimony in the trial has revolved around when Merck learned that its drug has unintended cardiovascular consequences.
Birchfield told the jury that by February 2001, Merck should have pulled Vioxx off the market or at least issued a big warning because company officials knew then there was a problem.
Birchfield asked the jurors to strongly consider the testimony of Dr. Eric Topol, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, who testified that his research showed the immediate cardiovascular risks of taking Vioxx.
“He stood up for the public health of America,” Birchfield said.
He told jurors that Merck tried to weaken the impact of a critical article Topol and his colleagues published in the Journal of the American Medical Association based on his research with a news release and letters shipped overnight to all doctors in the United States.
The company tried “to drown out the warning signals,” Birchfield said.
Topol also testified that before the article was published, Merck officials tried to pressure him into not publishing.
To that, Beck said the company never tried to “intimidate” Topol, describing Dr. Alise Reicin – the Merck executive who visited with the cardiologist about the article- as “98 pounds sopping wet.”
Beck described Topol as a doctor with a Dr. Jeckel & Mr. Hyde personality who doesn’t like to be contradicted.
“I’m sure Dr. Topol is a great heart doctor but he doesn’t like it when people disagree with him,” Beck said.
The first federal Vioxx trial is being held in Houston because of damage to the New Orleans courthouse caused by Hurricane Katrina.
In August, a Brazoria County jury awarded $253 million to the widow of a former marathon runner who died of a heart attack after taking the drug. But last month, a New Jersey jury found no wrongdoing in the case of an Idaho postal worker who suffered a non—fatal heart attack.
Merck currently faces an estimated 7,000 lawsutis by former Vioxx users or their families.