Beleaguered drug maker Merck & Co.'s request to postpone the next trial over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx was turned down Monday by the New Jersey judge presiding over the case.
Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee, who is overseeing nearly 2,500 Vioxx product liability cases that have been filed in New Jersey, also rejected two other Merck motions related to the upcoming trial.
Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, in a motion filed last week, had urged Higbee to postpone the trial’s start for 45 days, citing a “media blitz” after the first Vioxx trial. That trial ended Aug. 19 with an Angleton, Texas, jury awarding $253.4 million to the widow of Bob Ernst. He died in 2001 after taking Vioxx for eight months. The award is expected to be reduced to about $26 million because of Texas caps on punitive damages.
Set to start Sept. 12 in Atlantic City, the second trial involves a 60-year-old postal worker and former Marine from Boise, Idaho. Frederick Humeston survived a heart attack he suffered four years ago shortly after he began taking Vioxx for pain from old war wounds.
Merck a year ago pulled its blockbuster arthritis treatment, which had been bringing in $2.5 billion in annual sales, when its own study showed Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attack or stroke when taken for at least 18 months.
However, the first two cases to come to trial in state courts involve plaintiffs, Ernst and Humeston, who had taken the drug for a much shorter time.
Higbee ruled Monday morning that the trial would start with jury selection Sept. 12, as scheduled, said Higbee’s court clerk, Chris Morgan.
The judge also ruled against Merck on motions to exclude marketing materials about Vioxx, and other evidence about Merck’s conduct, which the company said were not directly related to the Humeston case. Morgan said it was possible Merck could raise those issues again during the trial.
As of Aug. 15, Merck faced nearly 5,000 lawsuits alleging patients were harmed by Vioxx -- nearly 600 cases more than what the company reported five weeks earlier. The total includes about 150 potential class-action suits.
Merck executives last week said the firm would consider settling some Vioxx cases, specifically those in which plaintiffs took the drug for at least 18 months and had low risks of cardiac problems.
Plaintiff lawyer Mark Lanier, who won the Ernst case, said Friday that Merck probably would face at least 50,000 U.S. product liability suits over Vioxx.
Merck shares rose 46 cents to $28.12, but they are down 12.5% this year. The stock has declined every year since 2001.