Merck & Co. won a major victory in the battle over its Vioxx painkiller Thursday when a New Jersey state jury found that the U.S. drugmaker properly warned consumers about the risks of the medication. The finding means Merck won't be held liable for the 2001 heart attack suffered by a man taking Vioxx.
After deliberating for less than eight hours over three days, the jury cleared Merck of allegations it failed to warn consumers about the drug's risks and engaged in "unconscionable commercial practices" in marketing it to doctors and their patients.
It is the first win in two cases for the New Jersey drug manufacturer. They are appealing a multimillion dollar jury award in a wrongful death case in Texas. Damages there will be cut to about one-tenth of the jury's $253 million award due to that state's caps on punitive damages.
Much of the seven-week trial, eagerly watched by lawyers and plaintiffs from around the U.S., relied on the testimony of medical experts. Witnesses for Merck testified the company believed Vioxx was safe for the heart before the drug was pulled from the market a year ago after a study showed it doubled risk of heart attacks and strokes when taken for at least 18 months.
The next of some 6,400 civil cases that have been filed is expected to be heard next month in Houston, reports David Madden of CBS radio station KYW in Philadelphia.
Other lawsuits have been filed in Canada, Europe, Brazil, Australia and Israel.
Merck has said it plans to fight the product liability suits one by one.
Members of Merck's legal team, some with tears in their eyes, hugged each other after the New Jersey verdict.
"I feel pretty good," said lead counsel Diane Sullivan. "I'm proud of the folks at Merck."
Vioxx was launched in the United States in 1999 and has been marketed in more than 80 countries.
The Texas and New Jersey cases have drawn attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers and stock analysts who are trying to determine what lies ahead for Merck. The company's stock rose 7.2 percent, or $2.04, to $30.45 in morning trading after the verdict.
The New Jersey verdict capped a trial centering on Frederick "Mike" Humeston, 60, of Boise, Idaho, who was stricken two months after he began taking the drug to ease pain from a Vietnam war knee injury.
Merck's lawyers appeared to be fighting a losing battle, repeatedly clashing with Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee, who denied key motion requests by them and threw out the testimony of Merck's first witness on procedural grounds.
On five different occasions, Merck asked her to declare a mistrial. Each time, she refused.
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