A US federal jury on Friday handed Merck & Co a major victory, clearing the drug maker of any responsibility in the death of a 53-year-old Florida man who had a heart attack after taking its once popular painkiller Vioxx for less than a month.
The verdict was the second court victory for Merck, and the first in a federal court. The company had argued in this case that plaintiff lawyers never proved any link between Vioxx and the heart attack Richard Irvin suffered in 2001. Merck's lawyers contended Irvin's age, gender and diet all put him at risk for heart attacks
It was also the second time jurors heard the case brought by Irvin's family. In Houston, where the case was heard in November and December because of damage from Hurricane Katrina, jurors were unable to reach a verdict. Merck won a state case in New Jersey last year while it lost one in Texas.
Irvin's widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett; the youngest of their three daughters, Ashley Irvin; and their only son, Richard Irvin III, all testified that Irvin's health had been excellent up to his heart attack.
Plunkett left the courtroom in tears without talking to reporters.
"Obviously the family is very upset," said her attorney, Andy Birchfield.
He said the biggest problem was Judge Eldon Fallon's ruling, shortly before the trial, that two of their experts -- a cardiologist and a pathologist -- could not testify that Vioxx was to blame for Irvin's heart attack. They were experts in their fields, but not about Vioxx, the judge ruled.
"With all due respect, we think that [ruling] was [in] error," Birchfield said. He said he would be talking with Plunkett about whether to appeal.
Phil Beck, a lawyer for Merck, said he believes the verdict indicates the jury found "that the Merck scientists lived up to their legal and ethical responsibilities when manufacturing and marketing Vioxx and making the decision to take Vioxx off the market."
Shares of Merck rose US$0.90, or 2.5 percent, in after-hours trading. They closed up US$0.07 at US$36.05 on Thursday in regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The jury deliberated for 3 hours and 40 minutes, the shortest period of any of the four juries yet in Vioxx-related cases.
Observers said the verdict was a clear victory for Merck but that the company will face more formidable cases later on this year when it faces plaintiffs who took Vioxx for 18 months or longer. Merck removed Vioxx from the market after a study showed it doubled patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months.
Still, Howard Erichson, a professor at Seton Hall Law School said this verdict may keep plaintiff lawyers from filing short-term use cases. It may also help Merck because the judge overseeing all the federal cases has said he wants to discuss a settlement after trying the first four.
"To the extent that ultimately there is a wide settlement, this win plays in Merck's favor," Erichson said.
But on the conference call, Merck senior vice president and general counsel Kenneth Frazier, reiterated that the company intends to try each case individually. So far, about 9,600 have been filed.
Frazier also said that the study which caused Merck to withdraw Vioxx may give plaintiff lawyers a data point to use in their cases, but they still face the burden of proof in proving that the drug was a cause of the heart attack or stroke. He said heart attacks are common and have many causes, including high blood pressure.