Merck Facing More Vioxx Suits

With more than 7,000 cases still outstanding, the courthouse record for Vioxx product liability suits is now 1 win, 1 loss, 1 draw for pharmaceutical giant Merck.

This morning, a judge in Houston declared a mistrial in the first federal trial over the once-popular drug's alleged heart-stopping side effects. The jury deliberated for some 18 hours over three days and said it was hopelessly deadlocked before being dismissed by the judge.

Another Texas jury -- this time in state court -- awarded $253 million to the family of a man who died after taking the painkiller for eight months. A similar case in New Jersey state court, concerning a victim who had a heart attack but did not die, ended in a verdict for the company.

The next federal product liability trial over Vioxx is set for next year. The next state court action will begin at the end of February in New Jersey.

Why all these court cases? At one point, more than 20 million Americans were taking the painkiller Vioxx.

Merck voluntarily pulled the drug from the market in September 2004 after a study showed that long-term use of the Cox-2 inhibitor (a new class of painkiller) could increase risk for heart attack or stroke. The irony: Merck touted Vioxx as a safer painkiller than inexpensive aspirin or acetaminophen, which can cause stomach problems.

Lawyers immediately began signing up plaintiffs who had suffered heart problems or strokes while on Vioxx. The company says it will continue to fight each case, forgoing a class-action settlement that could cost tens -- if not hundreds -- of billions.

Didn't something else happen with Vioxx in the last few days? The New England Journal of Medicine revealed on Thursday, fewer than 24 hours after the federal jury got started with deliberations, that Merck had withheld data in a study published in that prestigious medical journal.

According to the Journal, three patients who had suffered heart attacks while on the drug were pulled from the study. Merck had sent copies of the original New England Journal article to physicians across the country as proof that their blockbuster drug was safe.