Judge declares mistrial in Vioxx case

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The Independent Online

The latest trial accusing Merck, the struggling pharmaceuticals giant, of negligence in the development and marketing of its now withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, ended abruptly yesterday after the judge dismissed the jury because it had been unable to reach a verdict.

The mistrial offers little more than a reprieve to Merck. It faces roughly 7,000 different lawsuits related to Vioxx, which it took off the market last year amid claims that it caused heart attacks in patients who took it for 18 months or more. The company's share price slipped slightly on the news of the mistrial.

US District Court judge Eldon Fallon said the nine-member jury, sitting in a court in Houston, Texas, had deliberated for a "reasonable" time and could no longer be expected to reach a verdict. A retrial will begin in New Orleans in February.

Merck lost its first case in August, when a Texas jury awarded $253.4 million to a widow whose husband died after taking Vioxx. The loss stunned investors, spurring speculation that an ongoing barrage of cases could eventually ruin the drug-maker. Last month, however, Merck won a second case heard in Atlantic City, in New Jersey, the same state that is the company's base.

The company's chief legal adviser, Kenneth Frazier, said Merck was ready for the retrial, adding that litigation over Vioxx "will go on for years." In a statement he added: "We have the resources and the resolve to address these cases, one by one, in a reasonable and responsible manner."

The Houston jury was attempting to determine the validity of claims by the plaintiff, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, who was suing Merck for causing the death of her husband, Richard Irvin, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 2001 after taking Vioxx intermittently for less than one month.

Added controversy came to the trial last week, when the New England Journal of Medicine said that a study into Vioxx that it had published in 2000 might have omitted relevant data pointing to the potential dangers of the painkiller.