Jury selection in the first federal Vioxx trial begins today here in Houston. Of the thousands of cases pending, this one is especially important for the Merck drug company.
The count is one and one. Merck lost the first Vioxx-related trial which was held in Angleton. They won the second trial in New Jersey. Now the first federal trial is poised to begin and South Texas College of Law Associate Professor Charles Rhodes says the plaintiff in this case was a short-term Vioxx user, and a loss for Merck could be a serious blow to the company.
This case will determine whether Vioxx contributed to the death of Richard Irvin who died of a heart attack in May 2001. Irvin took Vioxx for slightly less than a month. Studies have shown that long-term use of Vioxx for 18 months or more can result in heart attack or stroke. Although this case is important, Forbes Magazine Staff Writer Matthew Herper says this one case won’t make or break Merck. He says what the company is really concerned about is a scenario similar to what happened with drug company Wyeth and the phen-phen weight loss drug.
And litigation costs of $20 billion are not outside the realm of possibility. With literally thousands of cases against Merck pending, the company is making defensive moves to cut costs and protect assets. Merck announced layoffs for 7,000 employees through 2008. They’re also closing five manufacturing plants. Herper says the company is dealing with more than just the Vioxx trials. Two of their biggest selling drugs, Zocor and Fosamax are about to go off patent and become available for generic development. Rhodes says the company’s financial troubles could play into the plaintiff’s strategy.
Merck’s strategy, on the other hand, will be to emphasize the voluntary withdrawal of the the drug from the market along with arguments that Irvin and other plaintiffs did not take Vioxx long enough for it to affect their health. Opening remarks in the trial are scheduled to begin on Wednesday and the judge wants lawyers to wrap up testimony within two weeks.