Trial over long-term Vioxx use begins

Merck withheld data on risks, attorney says

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- The legal fight over Vioxx returned to a New Jersey courtroom yesterday, with lawyers for two men who blame their heart attacks on the blockbuster pain reliever telling jurors that manufacturer Merck & Co. knowingly concealed its risks from consumers.

Merck's lead attorney dismissed those claims, attributing the heart attacks to other health problems while saying Vioxx was studied for more than seven years and complied with government requirements for new drugs.

''Merck and Merck's scientists and doctors acted reasonably and acted responsibly in the development and testing of Vioxx," said lawyer Christy Jones.

Mark Lanier, the attorney for Thomas Cona, 59, said the use of Vioxx made people with risk factors for heart disease ''walking time bombs," but Merck executives purposely withheld information about the drug to make more money selling it.

Holding up packets of Vioxx pills as he spoke, Lanier said Merck's development and testing of the drug was dominated by marketing concerns instead of medical ones and that Cona lived with heart disease risk factors but wasn't stricken until he began taking Vioxx.

''We have a right to know about the risks," Lanier told the packed courtroom.

Robert Gordon, a lawyer for John McDarby, 77, told the eight-woman, two-man jury that McDarby -- a diabetic -- would never have had Vioxx prescribed for his arthritis pain if Merck had properly warned of its dangers.

The two men's cases are being tried as one by a New Jersey judge who is overseeing more than 5,000 state court cases against Merck & Co. Both plaintiffs appeared in court, listening intently from the gallery along with family members.

The trial is expected to be closely watched because it is the first involving long-term Vioxx use, and even Merck conceded the drug may cause problems over a sustained period.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months' use.

Cona's lawyers say he took it for 22 months; McDarby's say he took it for four years.

In her opening, Jones told the jury that 865,000 people a year suffer heart attacks annually in America and that there was nothing distinguishing about the ones that struck Cona and McDarby -- or any evidence Vioxx was to blame.

Both had coronary artery disease and other risk factors for heart disease, she said.

By Associated Press  |