Merck was accused yesterday of violating a court order by providing documents to the media concerning an upcoming trial over the safety of Vioxx.

Merck was also accused of violating federal laws protecting the personal medical information of Howard Rogers, whose widow claims in a lawsuit he suffered a heart attack and died after taking the company’s painkiller.

The documents were provided earlier this month to the New York Times before being filed in state court in Alabama, according to a motion filed yesterday by Rogers’ attorneys.

“Merck provided depositions of Mrs. Rogers and Dr. William Clancy, who treated her husband, to local and national press on April 12, in violation of the court’s protecting order,” said Jere Beasley, one of Rogers’ attorneys.

The attorneys are seeking unspecified sanctions.

In a statement, Ted Mayer, an attorney representing Merck, said a recent motion that included information about Rogers was properly filed with the court clerk. The motion sought to have the Rogers case dismissed.

The trial, due to begin May 23, is expected to be closely watched, because it will be the first trial since Merck withdrew Vioxx last fall, when the Whitehouse Station drug maker disclosed the pill was linked to heart attacks and strokes in a clinical trial.

Until then, Vioxx was one of Merck’s best-selling medicines, generating $2.5 billion in annual sales, although the drug was dogged for several years by concerns that it caused heart problems.

Since the withdrawal, more than 2,400 lawsuits have been filed by people who claim Vioxx caused heart problems. Wall Street estimates the company’s liability could reach as high as $18 billion, which is weighing on Merck’s stock price.

That’s because a series of plaintiff victories could trigger still more lawsuits and prompt Merck to make expensive settlements. Moreover, several decisive verdicts could establish precedents that Merck acted improperly in promoting the painkiller.

Since the withdrawal, Merck’s general counsel, Ken Frazier, has repeatedly maintained the drug maker will fight every lawsuit. The strategy is designed, in part, to dissuade people with flimsy cases from going to court.

A hearing is expected to be held today in Alabama to review charges by Merck that Cheryl Rogers lied about the Vioxx taken by her husband. Merck recently claimed the pills weren’t shipped until six months after his death.

Her attorneys said last week they can’t explain any discrepancy concerning the availability of the medication, but do have witnesses who say they saw Rogers taking Vioxx up to the time of his death.

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