Attorneys give closing arguments in federal Vioxx trial |

Attorneys give closing arguments in federal Vioxx trial

HOUSTON – Merck & Co. knew its painkiller Vioxx increased heart attack risks but misled doctors and the public because it was more concerned with profits, a plaintiff’s attorney said Thursday in closing arguments of the first federal trial involving the drug.”They could take the high road to patient safety, or they could take the low road to sales,” lawyer Andy Birchfield told jurors. “What did they do? They pushed forward.”But Merck’s lead attorney, Phil Beck, said the pharmaceutical giant issued adequate warnings based on studies showing Vioxx was safe. He said Merck scientists put patient safety first and were not “evil” or “out to make an extra buck.”Beck said evidence showed ruptured plague in an artery caused a blood clot – not Vioxx – leading to the 2001 death of 53-year-old Richard “Dicky” Irvin of St. Augustine, Fla., whose widow is suing Merck. Beck said studies show Vioxx can lead to cardiovascular problems after 18 months but isn’t considered a real risk until after three years; Irvin had been on Vioxx only a month when he died.Although Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck voluntarily took Vioxx off the market last year, jurors cannot consider that as evidence that the product was defective or the company negligent, Beck said.Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon.The nine jurors, whose decisions must be unanimous, will decide whether Merck failed to warn Irvin’s doctor about Vioxx risks, whether the painkiller was defective and whether Merck was negligent in designing and marketing the drug. If jurors answer yes to any of those questions, they must decide whether any of those factors helped cause Irvin’s death.This is the first federal trial over Vioxx; Merck has already lost one state trial over the drug and won another, but it still faces about 7,000 lawsuits. The Irvin case was moved to Houston from its original venue of New Orleans because of damage from Hurricane Katrina.Birchfield urged jurors not to award anything to Irvin’s family for the loss of his estate and for funeral expenses, but to award about $350,000 to his widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, and $53,000 to his youngest daughter for their loss of support and services. Birchfield said he did not know an appropriate amount for the companionship and parenting lost by Plunkett and her two youngest children, who were minors when Irvin died : “a million, $5 million, $10 million?”Plaintiff’s attorneys told jurors that Merck rushed Vioxx to the market in 1999, despite studies showing safety risks, because it was about to lose patents on other profitable drugs. They also said Merck should have issued label warnings promptly after a 2000 study showed Vioxx users suffered five times as many heart attacks as users of the older painkiller naproxen.Instead, Merck – in press releases and letters to doctors – explained the results by saying that naproxen has a protective effect on the heart, much like aspirin, and by denying that Vioxx leads to heart attacks. Information about the study wasn’t included on the label until 2002.Merck took Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after results of a long-term study showed the drug doubled risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer.Beck said Merck acted appropriately and responsibly and urged jurors to find in the company’s favor.”We believe our good name is at stake,” Beck said.Vail, Colorado

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