Mary Godleski  /  AP
Plaintiff Elaine Doherty, center, and her husband, Daniel, and lawyer Jim Pettit, behind, leave the Atlantic County Superior Court in Atlantic City, N.J., on July 13, 2006.
updated 7/13/2006 5:03:19 PM ET 2006-07-13T21:03:19

Merck & Co. won a crucial legal victory on Thursday, when jurors decided that the drugmaker’s Vioxx painkiller, now the subject of at least 16,000 product liability lawsuits, did not cause a 68-year-old woman’s heart attack.

The case was the first in which jurors considered whether Merck failed to warn patients about the drug’s cardiac risks, rather than just doctors as in prior trials.

The jury found that Merck properly warned doctors but did not warn the woman of the cardiac risks of the drug. The jury of five men and two women found that Vioxx was not a major factor in Elaine Doherty’s 2004 heart attack, however.

Merck will not have to pay compensatory or punitive damages in the case. The jury also found that Merck did not violate New Jersey’s consumer fraud law, meaning it met standards of honesty and good faith in its marketing of Vioxx and did not conceal information about the drug’s cardiovascular risks.

In a news release after the verdict, a member of Merck’s legal defense team said science was on the company’s side in the case.

“Mrs. Doherty would have suffered a heart attack whether she was taking Vioxx or not,” said Jim Fitzpatrick of Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

The jurors, sitting in state Superior Court in Atlantic County, reached their decision in the second day of deliberations. The victory was the fourth in seven Vioxx trials for Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, which plans to appeal the multimillion-dollar verdicts against it in the other three cases.

Doherty’s husband, Daniel, clutched his wife’s hand as they rose before the verdict was read. Afterward, the couple spoke quietly with their attorneys but did not comment as they left the courtroom.

Lawyers for Doherty, a grandmother of six from Lawrenceville, N.J., alleged during the 5½-week trial that Vioxx was a major cause of her heart attack and that Merck downplayed the risks of Vioxx both to doctors and to patients. Doherty, the first female Vioxx user whose case came to trial, had taken Vioxx for 2½ years before suffering a mild heart attack in January 2004.

Merck lawyers countered that company officials disclosed the drug’s risks appropriately and that Doherty’s own cardiac risk factors — including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — were responsible for her heart attack.

Doherty’s lawyers, though, stressed that she had lost nearly 100 pounds and improved her health significantly in the years before having her heart attack.

At its peak, Vioxx was a $2.5 billion-a-year blockbuster for Merck. It withdrew Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30, 2004, saying research showed it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use. Data released since then indicate the heart risks started much sooner and persisted at least a year after people stopped taking Vioxx, although Merck has disputed that.

Merck has vowed to fight each Vioxx lawsuit individually and has set aside $970 million in reserve for its legal costs, of which $285 million had been spent as of the end of 2005.

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