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Merck Wins Vioxx Trial In Illinois

Offices of the Merck & Co. plant in Rahway, N.J., Merck's oldest plant, are seen July 19, 2002.
AP
Jurors in the Midwest's first trial over the once-blockbuster painkiller Vioxx on Tuesday cleared the drug's maker in the 2003 deadly heart attack of an obese 52-year-old woman.

A Madison County court jury found that Merck & Co. adequately warned doctors and consumers about possible complications from using Vioxx. After deliberating over two days, jurors ruled that the painkiller was not a "proximate cause" of Patty Schwaller's death.

The company had argued that Schwaller's obesity and other health issues might have posed risks that better explain her collapse and sudden death.

Schwaller had taken Vioxx for about 20 months. Her husband claimed that Vioxx contributed to his wife's death and that Merck failed to sufficiently warn consumers that the drug increased the risk of cardiovascular problems.

The victory was Merck's 10th in 15 cases that have been tried in the mushrooming litigation over the drug Merck pulled off the market in 2004 after its research showed it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Schwaller's widower, Frank Schwaller, showed no emotion when the verdict was read, but Dan Ball, an attorney for Merck, mouthed "thank you" several times to the jurors.

Afterward Ball said, "this was a very tragic event. Everyone agrees with this, but the tragedy was not related in any way to Vioxx."

Andy Crouppen, one of the attorneys for Schwaller, said they planned to appeal.

"It's not the result we were hoping for or expecting," Crouppen said. "While I have the utmost respect for the justice system, it's not fair. We hope that a higher court at a future time will render justice."

"Clearly something went wrong" with the case, he said.

Many jurors declined interview requests as they left the courthouse.

During the monthlong trial in this St. Louis suburb, where large jury awards favoring plaintiffs earned Madison County the label by some as a "judicial hellhole," Merck lawyers insisted that Patty Schwaller had several risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and a sedentary lifestyle.

The 5-foot-2 woman's weight fluctuated between 250 and 300 pounds for roughly two decades before her death, attorneys have acknowledged.

But attorneys for Frank Schwaller pressed that the woman had no heart attacks, strokes or symptoms of congestive heart disease before her fatal collapse, fueling their belief that Vioxx contributed to her demise.

Mikal Watts, a Schwaller attorney told jurors Monday that Merck pushed consumers like Patty Schwaller "over the cliff" by failing to adequately study Vioxx's possible side-effects on people at risk of heart disease. Watts said Merck publicly downplayed worries by outside researchers that Vioxx could put users at greater risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Top Merck executives "kept cutting the data until it told them what they wanted it to say," Watts insisted.