ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Merck & Co. (MRK) knew its painkiller Vioxx significantly increased the risk of heart attack but worked to hide the evidence from doctors, patients and the scientific community to boost profits, a lawyer for a former Vioxx user argued on Monday.
In opening arguments in the latest trial over the withdrawn drug, Mark Lanier, an attorney for a man who blames Vioxx for his 2003 heart attack, said the company was driven by marketing rather than science and was determined to make Vioxx into a blockbuster drug with sales of at least $1 billion a year.
Lanier, who won the first case against the company last year in Texas, said in his remarks that five Merck executives, including former chief executive Raymond Gilmartin, hid the truth about Vioxx.
Merck was losing patents for six blockbuster drugs and needed to replace them with another that would boost its profits, Lanier told the jury of eight women and two men in his opening statement, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.
The lawyer repeatedly used a graphic of a man standing near the edge of a cliff, and claimed that Vioxx pushed users over the edge when combined with other cardiovascular risk factors such as age, weight and cholesterol.
"When you take Vioxx and you are walking close to the edge of the cliff, you are a walking time bomb," Lanier said.
This trial combines two cases and, for the first time, involves long-term Vioxx users. The plaintiffs are Lanier client Thomas Cona, a 59-year-old New Jersey businessman who says he took Vioxx for 22 months before his June 2003 heart attack, and John McDarby, 77, who blames four years of Vioxx use for his heart attack in April 2004.
Merck has said it pulled the $2.5 billion a year drug from the market in September 2004 after a study showed that using it continuously for at least 18 months doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Merck argued in earlier trials that there was no evidence that short-term Vioxx use increased heath risks.
The trial marks the fifth lawsuit against Vioxx that has come to court. Merck lost the first trial, in which a Texas jury awarded $253 million to the widow of a Wal-Mart manager who died from a heart attack after taking the drug.
It marks the second trial in Merck's home state of New Jersey, where about half of the nearly 10,000 Vioxx-related lawsuits have been filed.
In the first New Jersey case, also before Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, a jury denied a claim by Idaho postal worker Frederick Humeston that Vioxx had caused his 2001 heart attack. Jurors interviewed after the case said they believed pre-existing health problems may have caused the attack.
Humeston took Vioxx intermittently for two months.
The plaintiffs in the current trial claim Merck knew of the drug's dangers years before its withdrawal.
Court documents being used by plaintiffs in these cases cite a study presented to the European League Against Rheumatism in 2000 showing that Vioxx use resulted in a significant increase in high blood pressure and stroke.
The documents charge that "Merck continued to deny the ill-health effects of Vioxx while at the same time reaping profits obtained through its non-disclosure and concealment."
Merck is expected to argue that Vioxx did not cause the heart attacks of the two long-term users.
"Plaintiffs will have a difficult time proving it was Vioxx and not their previous medical conditions that caused their heart attacks," Chuck Harrell, an attorney for Merck, said in a written statement.