Merck & Co. (search) rested its defense Wednesday in a high-stakes Vioxx product liability trial — and none too soon for jurors, who apparently have been pondering how to wind down from the rigors of the seven-week trial.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday in the case, which centers on an Idaho postal worker who blames his heart attack on Vioxx (search).
On Wednesday afternoon, when the last witness finished his testimony, the jurors retired to a room to see if any had questions for Dr. John Michael Gaziano, a cardiologist who had spent the day on the stand.
The questions — standard procedure in New Jersey civil trials — were written down and handed to Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee.
"What drinks are served at the sidebar?" said one, written in jest and read aloud in court by Higbee before the jurors returned. The courtroom erupted in laughter. Sidebars, in courtroom parlance, are private conversations held by the judge and the opposing attorneys when they want to talk without the jury or courtroom observers hearing them.
"I just think the jury peaked out on science," said Chris Seeger, lead counsel for plaintiff Frederick "Mike" Humeston. "They're ready to take the case now."
Gaziano, a Harvard Medical School professor retained by Merck as a consultant, testified that he believes there is no link between Vioxx and heart attacks (search), even with long-term use. He said use of low doses of Cox-2 inhibitors confers no more risk to users than dummy pills. Those drugs block the Cox-2 enzyme, which promotes inflammation, but protect the stomach lining, unlike other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Gaziano said there is no proof that either short-term or long-term use of the now-withdrawn painkiller leads to increased risk of serious cardiovascular complications.
Humeston, 60, of Boise, took Vioxx for about two months, to relieve knee pain from a Vietnam War wound, before he was stricken. Merck acknowledges links to heart attacks and strokes after 18 months' use, but contends that Humeston had not been taking Vioxx long enough to be at risk.
Gaziano, an expert in cardiology and epidemiology hired by Merck, contradicted statements of experts who testified on Humeston's behalf that Vioxx caused his heart attack.
He also contradicted the findings of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which last April concluded Cox-2 inhibitors are associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke and death with long-term use.
Merck blames the heart attack on Humeston, saying elevated blood pressure, excess weight and job stress triggered the attack, which Humeston survived.
On cross-examination, plaintiff's attorney David Buchanan painted Gaziano as an expert-for-hire whose opinions always favor drug companies. Gaziano acknowledged that in previous court cases, he rendered opinions that neither ephedra nor another weight-loss drug known as PPA — phenylpropanolamine — was proven dangerous. Ephedra has been banned by the FDA, which has also asked drug companies to stop marketing products containing PPA.
On Thursday, jurors will get a day off as lawyers for Merck and Humeston meet with Higbee to discuss how the jury is to be instructed before beginning deliberations.
Humeston's case is one of more than 7,000 suits filed against Merck over Vioxx, and plaintiff lawyers say thousands more suits will be filed in the future.
In the first Vioxx trial, a Texas jury in August found Merck liable in a Vioxx user's death, awarding his widow $253 million. That will be cut to about $26 million because Texas caps punitive damages. Merck plans to appeal that verdict.