Plaintiffs lawyers allege Merck hid Vioxx’s dangers
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – The legal fight over Vioxx returned to a New Jersey courtroom Monday, with lawyers for two men who blame their heart attacks on the blockbuster pain reliever telling jurors that manufacturer Merck & Co. knowingly concealed its risks from consumers.Mark Lanier, the attorney for Thomas Cona, 59, said the use of Vioxx made people with risk factors for heart disease “walking time bombs” but that Merck executives purposely withheld information about the drug to make more money selling it.Holding up packets of Vioxx pills as he spoke, Lanier said Merck’s development and testing of the drug was dominated by marketing concerns instead of medical ones and that Cona, of Cherry Hill, lived with heart disease risk factors but wasn’t stricken until he began taking Vioxx.”We have a right to know about the risks,” Lanier told the packed courtroom. “Doesn’t matter if it affects sales, doesn’t matter if it affects budget, doesn’t matter if it affects profit.”Robert Gordon, a lawyer for plaintiff John McDarby, 77, told the eight-woman, two-man jury that McDarby – a diabetic – would never have had Vioxx prescribed for his arthritis pain if Merck had properly warned of its dangers.The two men’s cases are being tried as one by a New Jersey judge who is overseeing more than 5,000 state court cases against Merck & Co. Both plaintiffs appeared in court Monday, listening intently from the gallery along with family members.The trial is expected to be closely watched because it is the first involving long-term Vioxx use, and even Merck conceded the drug may cause problems over a sustained period. Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months’ use.Cona’s lawyers say he took it for 22 months; McDarby’s say he took it for four years.Merck says the men had other risk factors for heart disease and that Vioxx can’t be blamed. The company also contends that Cona’s medical records don’t support the long-term use allegation.Lawyers for Merck were to give their openings later in the day. So far, Merck has won two Vioxx cases and lost a third in courtrooms around the country. Lanier won a $253 million jury verdict for the widow of a Wal-Mart produce manager who died of a heart attack while taking Vioxx. That verdict is expected to be reduced on appeal.Another trial is ongoing in Rio Grande City, Texas.Merck, which is based in Whitehouse Station, sold the drug beginning in 1999 as a pain reliever for arthritis and osteoarthritis sufferers who found other pain drugs too harsh on the stomach.More than 9,650 lawsuits over Vioxx have been filed in state and federal courts.Gordon in his opening statement said Merck sales representatives “falsely reassured” McDarby’s doctor about Vioxx’s safety and the lawyer sought to neutralize Merck’s arguments about McDarby’s medical problems by saying the drug was at least a contributing factor in his 2003 heart attack.The heart attack, which Gordon said triggered a fall in which McDarby broke his hip, left his client’s heart permanently damaged. The retired Park Ridge insurance agent went from being an active senior enjoying his golden years to a wheelchair-bound man who needs help from his wife to dress and use the toilet.”He went from a lounge chair to a wheelchair,” Gordon said.In the last New Jersey trial, a jury absolved Merck of liability for an Idaho postal worker who suffered a heart attack after taking Vioxx for only two months.New Jersey Superior Court Carol Higbee planned to use a pair of chess clocks to enforce time limits agreed upon by lawyers for Merck, Cona and McDarby. The plaintiffs’ attorneys will get a total of 40 hours to present their cases, not counting opening statements and closing arguments. Merck will get 35 hours.