updated 3/6/2006 10:15:31 AM ET 2006-03-06T15:15:31

The legal fight over Vioxx returned to a New Jersey courtroom Monday, with opening statements scheduled in the cases of two men who blame their heart attacks on the blockbuster arthritis drug that was pulled off the market in 2004.

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The cases of Thomas Cona, 59, of Cherry Hill, N.J., and John McDarby, 77, of Park Ridge, N.J., have been consolidated by the judge overseeing more than 5,000 state court cases against Merck & Co.

So far, Merck has won two Vioxx cases and lost a third in courtrooms around the country. Another trial is ongoing in Rio Grande City, Texas.

Merck, which is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., sold the drug beginning in 2000 as a pain reliever for arthritis and osteoarthritis sufferers who found other pain drugs too harsh on the stomach.

The company pulled it off the market in September 2004 after a clinical study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes after 18 months’ use.

More than 9,650 lawsuits over Vioxx have been filed in state and federal courts, but the Cona-McDarby trial is the first to involve plaintiffs who allege long-term 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.

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.

Cona is represented by Mark Lanier, a Texas attorney who 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.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge 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.

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