Jury Clears Vioxx Makers in Death of Florida Man

The first Vioxx case to be tried in federal court ends in a win for Merck. A jury of eight unanimously decided that Merck is not liable for the death of a 53-year-old Florida man in 2001. Richard Irvin suffered a fatal heart attack after taking Vioxx for a month. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in 2004.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. The first Vioxx case to be tried in federal court has just ended in a win for Merck. A jury of eight unanimously decided that Merck was not liable for the death of a 53-year-old Florida man in 2001. Richard Dickie Irvin suffered a fatal heart attack after taking Vioxx for a month.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market in 2004 after a study showed that it raised the risk of heart attacks. NPR's Snigdah Prakash joins us. And Snigdah, this is the second time that this case was being tried, no?

SIGDAH PRAKASH: Yes, exactly. It was tried back in November and December, in Houston, where it had been moved because of Katrina-related damage in New Orleans. And that time this case ended in a mistrial. This time, the jury deliberated for about four hours, we understand, and the jury of eight reached their verdict unanimously.

SIEGEL: Now, Merck faces thousands of cases over Vioxx. What's the significance of this case?

PRAKASH: That's right, Robert. At last count they faced almost 10 thousand cases. Three of them, only three, have come to trial so far. And until today, the score was split. The plaintiffs had a big win in the first case, in state court in Texas. Where a jury awarded almost a quarter of a billion dollars to the plaintiff. And of course the case will be appealed. And then the second case was a New Jersey state court, it was a win for Merck.

So this, this case tips the balance, which, from the point of view of Merck and investors is a good thing. And for plaintiffs it's not so good. Beyond this sort of scorecard, the significance of these early cases is that they are a test of the strength of each side's case. And specifically which story the jury will find more believable. Whether it's the plaintiffs' story that Vioxx was a very risky drug, and that Merck knew for years that it could cause heart attacks, but hid that evidence because it wanted to make big profits. Or the company's story. That, in fact, it behaved responsibly and pulled the drug from the market as soon as it knew that there was a problem.

SIEGEL: Well what does this verdict in favor of Merck tell you about the strength of this particular case? Or the strength of Merck's defense, in general?

PRAKASH: Well I think there are a few lessons that we can draw from this. The first one, I think, is that these are very difficult cases for the plaintiffs. The very thing that made it difficult to detect the problem that Vioxx was causing, which is that heart attacks are so common in, in the United States, makes it hard to prove that any given heart attack was caused by Vioxx. In fact, the company's general counsel released a statement earlier today, and let me just read you a couple lines because I think it's sort of a roadmap for the strategy that they're going to follow.

He said, "like all Vioxx cases, this one was about individual causation. That's why we're dealing with these cases one-by-one as they come to trial. The fact remains that heart attacks are a major cause of death in the United States, and have multiple causes. It'll be difficult for plaintiffs to prove that Vioxx was the cause of any individual's heart attack."

SIEGEL: Snigdah, what's next in the, in the Vioxx cases?

PRAKASH: Robert, there are lots of more cases to come to trial. The very next case will be in New Jersey, it'll be a case which does involve long-term exposure where there are two plaintiffs who took the drug for many years, and suffered heart attacks. And the plaintiffs' lawyer in this case will be Mark Lanier, the man who won a big victory in Texas against Merck.

SIEGEL: Thank you. NPR's Snigdah Pakash.

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