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New Legal Setbacks for Merck in Vioxx Trials

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A federal jury has awarded $51 million to 62-year old Gerald Barnett, a former FBI agent who suffered a heart attack in 2002. Jurors in New Orleans found that Merck & Co. “knowingly misrepresented or failed to disclose” information about Vioxx to Barnett’s doctor, who said that if Merck had disclosed the risks associated with Vioxx earlier, he would not have prescribed it for his patient. Mr. Barnett took Vioxx for a total of 33 months, and reportedly kept taking it after his heart attack, until a few weeks before it was pulled from the market in September 2004.

Merck suffered another legal setback when New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee overturned a November verdict which favored the company. Judge Higbee ruled that evidence uncovered since then showed that Merck withheld information showing heart attacks could occur with use of Vioxx for less than 18 months, according to the plaintiff’s attorney. Plaintiff Frederick “Mike” Humeston, who had a heart attack in September, 2001, will have a new day in court.

Some legal analysts believe that these developments will put pressure on Merck to consider settling cases. “How long can Merck carry the cost of these verdicts? None of these cases are coming back small,” says David Logan, Dean of Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island.