A federal jury said on Friday that drugmaker Merck Co. Inc. was not liable in the 2001 death of a Florida man who used the recalled painkiller Vioxx.
The eight-person jury's verdict was the first in a federal court and the third out of more than 9,000 cases filed against Merck in U.S. and state courts claiming the company hid the once-best-selling painkiller's health risks.
Specifically, the jury found Vioxx was not a defective product, that Merck was neither negligent in making the product nor did it fail to warn users of its risks.
Merck's share price jumped 1 percent to $36.50 in after-hours trade after closing at $36.05 Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.
Analysts said early court victories were good news for the drugmaker.
"This is certainly good for Merck. The more they win these cases early on the better off they are," said Ram Partners LP hedge fund partner Thomas Bundock, who added the fund does not own any shares of the drugmaker due to the legal hurdles facing the company.
"So far, Merck has done an admirable job of fending them off," Bundock said. "The question is: Can they continue? This is going to be a long, drawn-out process."
The case heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana focused on the death of 53-year-old Richard "Dickie" Irvin, whose family claimed Vioxx triggered a heart attack. Irvin took Vioxx for less than a month.
Merck argued Irvin's heart attack was due to an unhealthy lifestyle that led to clogging of his arteries.
Merck General Counsel Kenneth Frazier told reporters on a conference call that the company was pleased with the jury's decision, and is gearing up for other Vioxx trials around the country.
"The jury's decision confirms there is no medical or scientific evidence showing the short-term use of Vioxx increased the risk of heart attack or contributed in any way to the death of Richard Irvin," Merck said in a statement.
Irvin's widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, shook her fist and cried as she walked out of court with her attorney Andy Birchfield.
Irvin's survivors may consider appealing the verdict, Birchfield said. He added that losses in the early trials did not mean the plaintiffs' cases are weak.
"Merck is taking the position that they are going to fight every one of these cases and we're going to do the same," Birchfield said. "The case only gets stronger and stronger. It paints a darker and darker picture over what Merck did."
Merck's attorney, Phillip Beck, said Friday's verdict strengthens Merck's contention that it acted appropriately and in response to scientific evidence.
"Juries can understand that the Merck people acted appropriately at all times regarding Vioxx," Beck said.
The jury's verdict capped a retrial of the case. In December a nine-member jury could not reach the needed unanimous verdict when one member said Merck was liable for Irvin's death.
Merck recalled Vioxx in September 2004, after it was shown to double heart attack and stroke risks for those who took it at least 18 months.
This case is the first of the Vioxx lawsuits to be tried in federal court. It was originally tried in Houston after Hurricane Katrina temporarily closed the federal courts in New Orleans.
Two other cases have been completed in state courts, with Merck winning one in New Jersey and losing one in Texas, where the widow of a 59-year-old Vioxx user was awarded $253 million in damages. Merck is appealing that verdict.
Analysts have said the company's legal costs to fight the lawsuits could total several billions of dollars.
Food Fact: Some like it hot.
With good reason -- chiles' heat may bring you significant health protection. Capsaicin, the compound that gives chile peppers their firey heat, contains an anticoagulant that might help prevent heart attacks and strokes caused by blood clots. Chile peppers also contain a mixture of cancer-fighting antioxidants. Remember, don't touch your eyes as you're working with chile peppers, and wash your hands thoroughly afterward. As a general rule, the larger the pepper, the milder it is. To reduce a pepper's intensity, remove the core and seeds.
Fitness Tip of the day: Crunch time.
Great abs gives you more just a flat stomach. Here's how to get them. Develop your abdominal muscles by starting with basic sit-ups (knees bent) and work your way up to using an incline bench or ball. This powerful core of muscles provides strength for all of your other activities.
FAQ of the day: Does cranberry juice cure urinary tract infections?
Cure is too strong a word, but cranberry juice has been shown in carefully controlled experiments to help prevent recurrent urinary tract infections, or UTIs. Research in the late 1980s reported that cranberry juice (as well as blueberry juice) prevented common bacteria from adhering to cells that line the urinary tract. Studies in the '90s found that women who drank about 10 oz. of cranberry juice a day had lower levels of bacteria in their urine, and were 75% less likely to develop urinary tract infection in the next month.