Merck & Co. (MRK) on Tuesday said its fourth-quarter earnings rose slightly from the year-ago period, as it took a new charge related to the withdrawal of its Vioxx arthritis treatment.

Net earnings were $1.12 billion, or 51 cents per share. That compares with $1.1 billion, or 50 cents per share, in the 2004 quarter, when the company took an earlier charge to cover expenses of defending itself from thousands of lawsuits alleging harm from Vioxx.

Excluding special items, the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company earned 64 cents per share in the 2005 quarter. The special items included 12 cents a share in restructuring charges and about 1 cent a share related to the repatriation of foreign earnings.

The addition of $295 million to the company's Vioxx legal defense costs, however, was included in the profit of 64 cents a share.

Analysts, on average, expected 62 cents per share, according to Reuters Estimates.

The company reported sales in the quarter of $5.77 billion, little changed from the 2004 period. Analysts expected sales of $5.65 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

Merck withdrew Vioxx in September 2004 after the drug, which had annual sales of $2.5 billion, was shown to double the risk of heart attack and stroke among people taking it for 18 months or longer. More than 9,000 product-liability lawsuits have been filed against Merck in the United States by former Vioxx users or their families.

Research expenses were flat in the quarter, at $1.1 billion.