Merck, the pharmaceuticals giant, suffered a heavy courtroom setback in its battle to limit the financial fallout from the withdrawal of Vioxx, after a Texas jury awarded $7.75m (£4.35m) to the family of a man who took the painkiller for less than a month.
The jury decided that Merck was liable for the death, five years ago this week, of 71-year-old Leonel Garza and that the company had known since 2000 that the drug was linked to increased risk of strokes and heart attacks.
Merck did not withdraw the drug, which had sales of $2.5bn a year, until September 2004, after a study suggested it was dangerous when used for longer than 18 months.
Mr Garza had taken Vioxx for between a week and a month before his fatal heart attack.
The Garza family's attorney, Joe Escobedo, said: "This is the first verdict in which short-term use of Vioxx has been found by a jury to be causative of heart attacks. It goes a long way in dispelling this 18-month fiction that Merck has insisted on using in these trials."
The jury awarded $7m in compensation and $25m in punitive damages, although Texas law caps the punitive damages pay-out to $750,000.
Merck's lawyers had argued that Mr Garza's death was more likely to have been caused by his history of heart disease. They said they would appeal against the latest decision, which threatens to open the legal floodgates for claims from almost any of Vioxx's 20 million American users who suffered heart problems.
On Thursday, Merck revealed that almost another 2,000 cases had emerged, taking the total so far to 11,500. A global settlement is likely eventually, but these early court cases are important to set the parameters for who will be eligible for compensation.
Earlier this month, a jury in New Jersey awarded $13.5m in damages to 77-year-old heart attack victim John McDarby and his wife, Irma. Merck has now lost more of the cases to have come before a court than it has won, leaving analysts to fear the final bill for Vioxx litigation could run into tens of billions of dollars.Reuse content