ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – Merck & Co. won its first court battle over its Vioxx painkiller yesterday when a New Jersey state jury found that the drugmaker properly warned consumers about the risks of the medication. The verdict absolved Merck of liability for a heart attack suffered by a Vioxx user.

Sarah Royce
Merk & Co. lawyers Stephen Raber, Christy Jones and Diane Sullivan smile as they walk out of the court in Atlantic City, N.J yesterday after a major victory for the company. (AP PHOTO)

After deliberating for less than eight hours over three days, the jury cleared the nation’s No. 5 pharmaceutical company of allegations it failed to warn consumers about the drug’s risks and engaged in “unconscionable commercial practices” in marketing it to doctors and their patients.

The verdict was Merck’s first win out of two Vioxx-related trials. In August, a Texas jury found the company liable in a Vioxx user’s death. Merck is appealing that ruling yet still faces about 7,000 lawsuits over Vioxx, which it voluntarily pulled off the market last year because of links to heart attacks and strokes after 18 months’ use.

Much of the seven-week New Jersey trial, eagerly watched by lawyers and plaintiffs from around the country, relied on the testimony of medical experts. Witnesses for Merck testified the company believed Vioxx was safe for the heart before the drug was pulled m the market in response to a study that showed it doubled risk of heart attacks and strokes when taken for at least 18 months.

Thursday’s verdict means it might take several more cases, including a federal case that will start Nov. 28 in Houston, before lawyers can find any sort of precedent that might determine Merck’s ultimate Vioxx liability.

Merck was clearly elated by its victory.

“We feel very much vindicated,” Merck general counsel Kenneth Frazier said. “The jury found in our favor, we believe, because the evidence showed that Merck acted responsibly.”

Frazier said Merck will fight each lawsuit individually, adding that mass settlements aren’t appropriate because facts in each case differ.

“There’s an awful lot at stake, not just for Merck,” but for the pharmaceutical industry and patients, he said, claiming floods of lawsuits can discourage scientific research and keep needed drugs off the market.

Merck’s stock rose $1.07, or 3.8 percent, to $29.48 after the verdict. More than 32 million shares changed hands in barely two hours on the New York Stock Exchange – about four times the stock’s normal daily volume.

Wall Street analysts said the company clearly will face huge legal costs given its plan to fight each lawsuit. The company has set aside just $675 million for legal defense costs, but nothing for jury awards or settlements.


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