NEW ORLEANS – A federal jury ruled in favor of Merck & Co. Inc. on Tuesday in a lawsuit over the painkiller Vioxx, finding there was not enough evidence to link the drug to a Kentucky man's heart attack.
The jury, made up of six women and two men, deliberated for only about three hours before reaching a verdict. The jurors left the courthouse without commenting on their decision.
Robert Garry Smith, 56, claimed in U.S. District Court that the drug contributed to a heart attack he had 3 1/2 years ago. He said he had taken Vioxx for knee pain for about 4 1/2 months but didn't realize at the time of the heart attack that Vioxx may have been a cause for concern.
But the drugmaker's defense lawyer argued there was no medical testimony indicating Vioxx had anything to do with the heart attack that Smith suffered in 2003. "That doesn't exist in this case," attorney Phil Beck said in closing arguments Tuesday morning.
Vioxx went on the market in 1999; Merck pulled it two years ago, after a study found a greater risk of heart attack in those who had taken the drug continually for at least 18 months than in those who had taken placebos.
Including the verdict Tuesday, the drugmaker has amassed a five-and-four record in state and federal courts in Vioxx-related cases. A sixth case Merck won was overturned by a judge and is set to be retried. At least 14,200 cases are pending nationwide.
Merck issued a news release proclaiming its victory shortly after the verdict in Smith's case was read. In the Merck statement, Beck said he believes the jury's verdict shows Merck acted responsibly.
There was no talk of settlement, and Beck told reporters the legal strategy would remain much the same: "We'll keep trying cases one at a time," he said.
Smith did not speak as he left the courtroom.
During closing arguments Tuesday morning, Smith's attorneys depicted a company that hid its knowledge of the health risks associated with Vioxx in the name of profit and competitive edge.
But Beck disputed the length of use and said Smith's medical records immediately following the heart attack did not indicate Smith told doctors he was taking the drug at that time. Beck also suggested Smith's testimony and recollections may have been influenced by the prospect of financial gain from a lawsuit.
Beck also argued Smith was at risk for a heart attack before his first Vioxx dose and that evidence pointed to strenuous activity — Smith's shoveling snow — as triggering Smith's heart attack.
Smith lawyer John Boundas acknowledged Smith had risk factors for a heart attack, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but told jurors those factors shouldn't negate the risks of Smith's having taken Vioxx.
Smith, a maintenance supervisor at a chemical plant, had sought unspecified damages for past and future mental anguish, medical bills and loss of earnings.
Benjamin Zipursky, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law who has tracked Vioxx litigation, said he doesn't see Merck moving toward settling the many pending cases.
"They may one day, but I have no reason to believe it will happen anytime soon," he said in an interview before closing arguments.