The first federal Vioxx trial began today as a jury was chosen in a case that would determine if Merck & Co.’s once-popular painkiller caused the death of a 53-year-old man.

The court took less than two hours to choose a four-woman, five-man jury three of whom are alternates. The case before U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans is in Houston rather than its original venue of New Orleans because of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Opening statements were set to begin soon afterward.

The case pits the widow of Richard “Dicky” Irvin, who took Vioxx for about a month to alleviate back pain, against Merck, which has scored a loss in Texas and a win in its home turf of New Jersey in the first two state-level Vioxx cases.

Lawyers representing Irvin’s widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, aim to prove that Merck’s former blockbuster painkiller led to his death in May 2001. Plunkett says her husband, the manager of a wholesale seafood distributor of St. Augustine, Fla., was in “very good health” when he began taking Vioxx in April of that year.

The company’s court filings indicate Merck’s defense will center on whether Vioxx could be responsible for Irvin’s death when he took the painkiller for such a short time.

The plaintiffs allege some of the 58 clinical trials involving 10,000 patients that Merck conducted before Vioxx went on the market in 1999 show adverse cardiovascular effects after short term use, as short as six weeks.

Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after a long-term study showed the drug doubled risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. By then, more than 20 million Americans had used Vioxx.

The company faces about 7,000 state and federal lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential payouts for judgments, settlements and legal fees.

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