Vioxx video may aid plaintiffs
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

ATLANTIC CITY -- A jury hearing a Vioxx product liability case got its first look Tuesday at e-mail messages, internal documents and other materials showing manufacturer Merck & Co. was concerned about the drug's potential for causing heart attacks long before taking it off the market.

They also got to watch a movie: "V Squad," a campy, 12-minute sales-training video played in court, which showed two Merck salespeople dressed as superheroes -- each in a black suit, with an orange "V" on the chest -- fending off human "obstacles" who represented questions from doctors to whom the company pitched its blockbuster arthritis drug.

The video, like the internal documents, struck at a central theme in the cases of plaintiffs Thomas Cona and John McDarby -- that Merck knew its drug was dangerous but misled doctors, consumers and its own sales representatives about the risks in a bid to promote a $2.5 billion-a-year product that was key to the company's future.

The trial, in its second day, focuses on Cona, 59, of Cherry Hill, and McDarby, 77, of Park Ridge, who suffered heart attacks while taking Vioxx and are now among thousands suing the Whitehouse Station-based drug maker over it.

The 10-person jury panel in the case lost a member Tuesday. Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee agreed to excuse a woman because of financial hardship. The 35-year-old woman, who works as an administrator, told Higbee she couldn't afford to continue serving as a juror because her employer would only pay her for two weeks of jury duty. The trial is expected to finish by March 31.

The absence probably won't affect deliberations: Six of the remaining nine people will be chosen as jurors at the end of testimony, with the others as alternates.

Merck, which faces about 9,650 lawsuits over Vioxx, pulled the drug off shelves in September 2004 after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes when taken for more than 18 months.

Cona and McDarby both say they took it for longer. Merck, however, contends that Vioxx was not to blame and that the two were candidates for heart attacks before they ever took it because of various ailments.

The lone witness Tuesday was Merck marketing executive David W. Anstice, who was called to the stand by Mark Lanier, Cona's attorney.

In a daylong battle, the dry, proper Australia native and the freewheeling Texas attorney sparred over differences big and small, their chilly exchanges broken up only by objections from Merck lawyer Michael Brock and sidebars with the judge.

Among the documents shown was a March 2000 e-mail sent by Merck's former chief scientist, Edward Scolnick, in which he said the results of a clinical study showed that heart attacks in participants were "mechanism based," meaning caused by the drug.

Also shown:

An internal memo in which Merck executives said it would cost the company $611 million in sales if rival Pfizer and its arthritis drug Celebrex beat Vioxx to market, which it ultimately did.

A 2001 e-mail message from Scolnick to Anstice in which Scolnick said the only essential study needed for Vioxx was a "CV outcomes" study whose lone purpose was assessing whether Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes. Merck didn't do the study, although Anstice said the company had the data it needed to evaluate Vioxx's cardiovascular safety from other clinical tests.

A letter sent to then-CEO Raymond Gilmartin by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in which the agency told Merck it was misrepresenting Vioxx's safety profile and misleading doctors.

Lanier also took aim at Anstice personally, telling jurors that he and other Merck executives had an incentive to put profits before safety because their pay packages were tied to the company's sales and profits, which in turn hinged on Vioxx's success.

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