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A product liability case blaming a man’s heart attack on the painkiller Vioxx started Wednesday, with his lawyer telling jurors the drug’s maker put profits over safety. Manufacturer Merck & Co. asserted there were other causes for the heart attack. Chris Seeger, lead attorney for 60-year-old Boise, Idaho, postal worker Frederick “Mike” Humeston, said Humeston was a healthy, active Vietnam veteran who enjoyed hiking when he was stricken two months after his doctor prescribed Vioxx to relieve pain from a war injury. Merck knew the drug had links to increased incidence of heart attacks long before Humeston’s Sept. 18, 2001, heart attack but didn’t disclose it, Seeger said in his 90-minute opening statement. “Did they issue a ‘Dear Doctor’ letter? No. Did they warn patients? No, they didn’t do that either. Did they change the (warning) label? No, they didn’t,” he said. But Merck attorney Diane Sullivan painted a different picture, saying Humeston’s physical condition and other risk factors were to blame, not Vioxx. She said the company had published studies about safety risks and notified the Food and Drug Administration of their findings. Merck’s scientists were keenly interested in potential safety concerns about the drug, she said, showing jurors a copy of a 2001 e-mail message from company research chief, Edward Scolnick, in which he reacted to a study showing an increased risk of cardiovascular complications for those taking the drug for more than 18 months. “I was sick at the thought we were doing harm to patients,” Scolnick wrote. “For you to believe the plaintiff’s case, you’d have to believe that all these people got together and did something sinister,” Sullivan told the jury. Humeston survived and is now suing Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, saying the company knew the risks posed by the popular arthritis drug but failed to warn consumers adequately. Holding hands with wife Mary, Humeston limped into the courthouse Wednesday morning, favoring the damaged knee that earned him a Purple Heart and later prompted his doctor to recommend Vioxx. The trial, one of about 2,475 Vioxx cases pending in New Jersey, is the first one to go to trial since a Texas jury found Merck responsible for the death of a Vioxx user whose widow blamed the drug for his heart arrhythmia. In that case, the jury found Merck to blame and ordered a $253 million award, though that amount is expected to be dramatically reduced because of a Texas law capping punitive damages in civil cases. The suit was filed in New Jersey — the company’s home state — to prevent Merck from trying to move the case to federal court, which lawyers perceive as less friendly to plaintiffs. Merck also faces about 2,100 lawsuits in federal courts. “This isn’t a guy who neglected his health,” Seeger told the jury, saying Humeston’s cholesterol levels and blood pressure were normal and that he never smoked. “He would not have had this heart attack without this drug.” The trial is shaping up as a battle of expert witnesses trying to simplify complicated medical evidence for the seven-woman, three-man jury that will hear the case over the next four to six weeks. Vioxx, which had peak sales of $2.5 billion annually, was on the market from May 1999 through September 2004, when Merck voluntarily withdrew it because another study showed risk of cardiac problems doubled after 18 months’ use. Analysts say the company could end up spending up to $50 billion on settlements and jury awards in Vioxx cases. Shares of Merck rose 19 cents to $28.86 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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