Work-related stress and other risk factors caused a former postal worker’s heart attack and not the withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, Merck & Co Inc.’s lead attorney said in closing arguments at the second Vioxx trial on Monday.
“The best common sense explanation for Mr. Humeston’s heart attack is the stress he had in September of 2001,” Merck attorney Diane Sullivan told the jury.
Sullivan also argued that the plaintiff was not taking Vioxx long enough to trigger the increased heart risks that a Merck study found occurred after 18 months of continuous use.
The suit was brought by Frederick “Mike” Humeston, a 60-year-old Idaho postal worker who blames Vioxx for his 2001 heart attack. Humeston had been taking Vioxx for about two months to relieve knee pain stemming from a Vietnam War wound.
Humeston’s lawyer is now scheduled give his closing on Tuesday after which the case will go to the jury.
The case is being keenly watched as an indicator of how the more than 6,500 pending lawsuits filed by Vioxx users might play out.
Merck in August lost the first Vioxx case to go to trial as a Texas jury ordered the company to pay $253 million to the widow of a Vioxx user. Merck is appealing the verdict.
Sullivan told jurors that Humeston was under “chronic stress” as a result of his knee pain and job-related pressure.
Four days before the heart attack, Humeston had argued with his employer about whether his knee allowed him to perform his duties for the U.S. Postal Service, Sullivan said.
The day before the attack, he received a phone call from his doctor telling him that his employers had been conducting video surveillance in an attempt to prove he was not as disabled from the injury as he claimed, Sullivan said.
She attempted to cast doubt on Humeston’s account to another cardiologist that he had no work-related stress.
“It’s up to you to decide whether he is playing it straight or not,” Sullivan told the jury.
Sullivan said the plaintiff’s age was a potential risk factor for heart attack and told the court that he had moderately high blood pressure and that his doctors had said that he was ”borderline obese.”
Sullivan also said a cardiologist had testified that Humeston’s ”very low” level of HDL, or good cholesterol, could not be ruled out as a possible hear attack cause.
Humeston’s heart attack was triggered by plaque tearing away from a coronary artery where it had built up. Sullivan told the jury there have been no clinical studies showing that Vioxx causes such plaque ruptures.
Merck withdrew the $2.5 billion a year medicine from the market last year after studies showed increased heart risks following long-term use.
Humeston’s lawyers contend that Merck hid the risks and recklessly marketed the drug to boost profits.
Sullivan said Merck went to great lengths to ensure the safety of its product, conducting studies that went well beyond the requirements for FDA approval.
“If you think your drug causes heart attacks and you just want to make a lot of money, you don’t do studies like this,” Sullivan told the jury.
Christopher Seeger, Humeston’s attorney, objected to some references in Sullivan’s closing to testimony by a Merck researcher that had been disallowed by the judge.
Judge Carol Higbee agreed that some points made by Sullivan were unacceptable to put before the jury and said she would take that into consideration when instructing the jury.
“It’s so wrong. I just don’t know how you could go that far,” Higbee told Sullivan.