updated 7/11/2005 4:53:30 PM ET 2005-07-11T20:53:30

About 120 potential jurors filled out questionnaires Monday as jury selection began in the nation’s first Vioxx-related lawsuit to go to trial.

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Jurors were to fill out a 19-page questionnaire with more than 100 questions about their health habits, favorite television shows and political leanings, among other topics.

The Texas lawsuit is the first of more than 3,800 state and federal lawsuits pending against New Jersey-based Merck & Co. over the popular painkiller the company took off the market last September after research showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke.

Merck claims the company acted responsibly, researching Vioxx’s safety in extensive clinical trials before it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and monitoring the medicine after it went on the market in 1999.

But thousands of plaintiffs seeking potentially billions of dollars in damages allege otherwise.

The questionnaire asked jurors how much they agree with such statements as: “Corporate executives may lie under oath to protect the company’s profits and to increase salaries and bonuses,” and “I am sometimes outraged at the conduct of companies that make prescription medicines.”

The questionnaire also asked if potential jurors belonged to groups that support reducing, limiting or eliminating jury verdicts.

Death of marathon runner
The case going to trial this week in Angleton, a semi-rural town about 40 miles south of Houston, centers on the 2001 death of personal trainer and marathon runner Robert Ernst, 59.

His widow, Carol Ernst, alleges her husband took Vioxx for about eight months to ease pain and stiffness in his hands and the drug caused him to die in his sleep of an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

Her lawyer, Mark Lanier, plans to argue that Merck knew Vioxx could be lethal years before the company pulled the lucrative drug from the market.

Merck claims no studies link Vioxx to arrhythmia, and therefore Vioxx couldn’t have caused Robert Ernst’s death.

The jury pool was to return Wednesday for lawyers to question them, and opening statements were planned for Thursday, according to state District Judge Ben Hardin.

Lawyers will spend Tuesday hashing out what expert testimony jurors will hear.

Tainted jury pool
Last week Merck asked Hardin to postpone the case for two months because pretrial publicity — primarily stemming from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s June 30 lawsuit alleging Merck falsely touted the safety of Vioxx — could have tainted the jury pool.

Hardin said he would forge ahead with jury selection Monday and would examine answers to the jury questionnaires to gauge any bias before ruling on the request for a delay in the trial.

About 20 million people took the anti-inflammatory drug prescribed for arthritis and acute pain since it came on the market with great fanfare in 1999. In 2000, a study found that some Vioxx users suffered five times as many heart attacks as users of the older painkiller naproxen, sold under the brand name Aleve.

In 2002, the FDA added warnings to Vioxx’s label. Follow-up research showed Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer, which prompted Merck to pull the drug.

Merck shares rose 25 cents to $31.25 in late afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

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