Drug maker Merck & Co. repeatedly tried to downplay the cardiac risks of its painkiller Vioxx, so user Elaine Doherty didn't know about them and couldn't control them before she suffered a heart attack after taking the drug, her lawyer told jurors as a product liability trial began Monday.
Doherty, a diabetic grandmother of seven who was taking Vioxx for arthritis, blames her January 2004 heart attack on the drug. Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30, 2004, saying its own research showed it doubled risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months' use.
However, Doherty attorney Jim Pettit said that after Vioxx was launched in 1999, Merck pushed the Food and Drug Administration to put new data about the drug's cardiac risks in the precautions section of the detailed package insert, rather than in the more-prominent warnings section. Merck calculated that placement would hurt sales less, and the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company then scrapped plans to finally study the drug's cardiac safety, Pettit said.
Doherty, a 68-year-old Lawrenceville homemaker, had been working hard to reduce her risk factors for heart trouble, her lawyer said. Between the late 1990s and 2003, she lost 90 pounds, cut her cholesterol level in half and sharply lowered her blood pressure and blood sugar level, but Vioxx added another risk, Pettit said. Merck downplayed that risk in an April 2002 letter to doctors, including Doherty's, he said.
"There was a 510 percent increased risk that Elaine Doherty would have a heart attack because she was taking Vioxx," Pettit said, pointing out his client, her husband, Daniel, and their children in the courtroom.
"Vioxx was one substantial contributing factor" in the heart attack, and that is all the plaintiffs have to prove, he said. "Give Elaine and Dan justice, no more and certainly no less."
Lawyers for Merck, which now faces more than 13,000 Vioxx-related lawsuits, began their opening arguments Monday afternoon.
The case is the seventh to come to trial over Vioxx, which had been a $2.5 billion-a-year blockbuster for Merck, and is the first trial with a female plaintiff. Merck has lost three trials so far, with juries awarding multimillion-dollar verdicts in each. The company plans to appeal those losses.
The trial is the first since new Vioxx research results, recently disclosed by Merck, raised questions about how quickly the drug could cause harm, potentially undermining the credibility of Merck, which has vowed to fight every lawsuit individually.
Merck's legal team includes Baltimore lawyer Paul Strain and will be led by Diane Sullivan, who helped the company win its first Vioxx trial in New Jersey last November, despite several confrontations with State Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee. Higbee is handling all the Vioxx lawsuits filed in New Jersey, about 6,435.
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