ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – A lawyer for a man who blames Vioxx (search) for his heart attack told jurors Wednesday that the man had an active lifestyle but was stricken within two months of beginning to take the painkiller.
During opening statements in a product liability case against Vioxx maker Merck & Co. (MRK), attorney Chris Seeger said client Frederick "Mike" Humeston resorted to the drug to address persistent pain from a Vietnam War shrapnel wound.
Humeston, 60, of Boise, Idaho, survived the Sept. 18, 2001, heart attack and is now suing Whitehouse Station-based Merck, saying the company knew the risks posed by the popular arthritis drug but failed to warn consumers adequately.
Holding hands with wife Mary, Humeston limped into the courthouse Wednesday morning, favoring the damaged knee that earned him a Purple Heart and later prompted his doctor to recommend Vioxx.
The trial, one of about 2,475 Vioxx cases pending in New Jersey, is the first one to go to trial since a Texas jury found Merck responsible for the death of a Vioxx user whose widow blamed the drug for his heart arrhythmia (search). In that case, the jury found Merck to blame and ordered a $253 million award, though that amount is expected to be dramatically reduced because of a Texas law capping punitive damages in civil cases.
The suit was filed in New Jersey — the company's home state — to prevent Merck from trying to move the case to federal court, which lawyers perceive as less friendly to plaintiffs. Merck also faces about 2,100 lawsuits in federal courts.
Lawyers for Merck were to give their opening statement later Wednesday morning. The company contends that Humeston's condition and sedentary lifestyle led to his heart attack, and that Vioxx was not the cause.
The trial is shaping up as a battle of expert witnesses trying to simplify complicated medical evidence for the seven-woman, three-man jury that will hear the case over the next four to six weeks.
Vioxx, which had peak sales of $2.5 billion annually, was on the market from May 1999 through September 2004, when Merck voluntarily withdrew it because research showed the drug increased risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months' use.
Analysts say the company could end up spending up to $50 billion on settlements and jury awards in Vioxx cases.
Shares of Merck rose 19 cents to $28.86 on the New York Stock Exchange (search).