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Jury Rules Merck Not Liable for Heart Attack Death

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Jury Rules Merck Not Liable for Heart Attack Death

Law

Jury Rules Merck Not Liable for Heart Attack Death

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A court victory today for the maker of the drug Vioxx. A jury in Atlantic City found in favor of Merck & Company in the second Vioxx liability case to go to trial. Merck withdrew the painkiller from the market last year when a study showed that the drug doubled the risk of heart attack after 18 months. In August, a Texas jury awarded a quarter of a billion dollars in damages to the widow of a man who took Vioxx and died. After today's verdict was announced, Merck's stock price rose more than 3 percent. NPR's Snigdha Prakash is in Atlantic City and sent this report.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH reporting:

At 10:35 this morning, the jury of nine gave Merck the news it wanted and needed. In answers to four questions about Merck's marketing practices, the jury said that Merck hadn't misled doctors about Vioxx's risks or concealed important information from them. The company's general counsel, Kenneth Frazier, spoke to reporters later.

Mr. KENNETH FRAZIER (Merck's General Counsel): We're very pleased with the outcome of this trial. The jury found in our favor, we believe, because the evidence demonstrated that Merck acted responsibly.

PRAKASH: The plaintiff in this case--a 60-year-old postal worker named Michael Humiston--alleged that his 2001 heart attack was caused by intermittent use of Vioxx over two months. Merck argued that stress on the job, borderline obesity and elevated blood pressure were to blame for Humiston's heart attack and Vioxx had nothing to do with it. The company's lawyers argued to the jury that there was no scientific study that showed that the short-term use of Vioxx posed a threat to the heart.

Merck faces 6,400 Vioxx cases around the country, and today Frazier repeated the company's position that it has no plans to settle them.

Mr. FRAZIER: We believe that we can defend these cases. We do not intend to roll over in these cases when people bring insubstantial claims into court in an attempt to collect money improperly from Merck. It's not the right thing for us to do. It's not the responsible thing to do for our shareholders. It's also not the right thing to do for patients.

PRAKASH: Frazier said Vioxx had helped many people with chronic pain. He said plaintiffs' lawyers were using information learned over time about Vioxx's risks to argue that the drugmaker should have known and did know about those risks early on.

Mr. FRAZIER: The fact of the matter is every new drug that comes to market is one in which, over time, we learn additional information, both about safety and about efficacy. And that's just part of the price that we pay for innovation.

PRAKASH: The next Vioxx case will go to trial the week after Thanksgiving in federal court in Houston. That case involves a plaintiff who suffered a heart attack and died after taking Vioxx for a month. Plaintiffs' lawyers will try again to make the case that persuaded another Texas jury that Merck did know about Vioxx's risks years ago and that it hid the information because Vioxx's profits were crucial to the company. Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Atlantic City, New Jersey.

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