By Janet McConnaughey
Thursday, November 16, 2006
A federal jury yesterday cleared Merck & Co. in the July 2003 heart attack suffered by a Utah bank credit manager who had taken the once-popular painkiller Vioxx for 10 1/2 months.
The case was the 11th to be tried and the fourth in federal court. Merck won two previous federal cases and lost the third. In state court, it has won three and lost three. Jurors decided a fourth in Merck's favor, but the judge later ordered a retrial.
Charles Laron "Ron" Mason, 64, of Salt Lake County, Utah, began taking Vioxx after years of taking anti-inflammatory drugs because of back pain. He had no comment after the verdict. "We thought we had proved the case. Obviously, the jury didn't agree," said his lawyer, Ed Blizzard, who added that a decision had not been made on whether to appeal.
"This is a satisfying verdict for Merck," Kenneth C. Frazier, the company's executive vice president and general counsel, said in a statement.
Philip Beck, a Merck lawyer, noted that the plaintiffs' steering committee had chosen Mason's case as one it wanted to try early.
Merck lawyers, in closing arguments, said Vioxx had nothing to do with Mason's heart attack because he took the painkiller for less than a year and stopped taking it four days before the heart attack.
Blizzard countered that the drug's effects didn't go away between the Monday that Mason began taking a different painkiller for chest pains and the Friday of his heart attack. Blizzard also argued that Merck withheld crucial safety information from doctors and patients.
Mason was seeking about $690,000 in lost wages and other damages.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours after U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana turned the case over to them yesterday.
Mason's case is among more than 24,000 filed since Merck withdrew the drug from the market two years ago because of evidence that Vioxx increased patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes.
An additional 15,000 potential plaintiffs have agreements temporarily suspending the time limit to sue, and Merck disclosed last week that a Canadian judge has approved a class-action lawsuit for residents of Quebec.
Mason's case is the fourth to be heard before Fallon, who is handling pretrial matters for all federal lawsuits. The judge has said he hopes to work out a settlement after the next case; Merck has said it plans to try every case separately.
The fifth federal lawsuit, that of Anthony Dedrick, 50, of Waynesboro, Tenn., is scheduled to go to trial in Fallon's court Nov. 27.