Chalk up another win for Merck & Co in a federal Vioxx lawsuit. Yesterday, a jury in New Orleans ruled in favour of the company in a case involving a Kentucky man who blamed the drug for a heart attack he suffered in 2003.

That makes two out of three wins for Merck in federal Vioxx lawsuits, and five out of 10 among all the cases that have come to court to date. The company is still facing more than 16,000 product liability lawsuits, and has vowed to fight them individually, setting aside a $1 billion warchest to fund its defence, rather than seek a national settlement that could prove costly.

The last federal trial went against Merck, with damages of $51 million awarded to plaintiff Gerald Barnett, although the scale of the award prompted a judge to order a re-trial in the case.

In the latest case, 56-year-old Robert Garry Smith suffered a heart attack in February 2003 after taking Vioxx (rofecoxib) for four and a half months and maintained that Merck had failed to provide adequate warnings of the cardiovascular risks with the drug. The company claims that any elevations in risk do not occur unless it is taken for 18 months or more.

The plaintiff’s case was weakened by the fact that started taking Vioxx after labelling for the drug was changed to include a reference to a possible risk of increased risk of thrombosis in 2002, and also that he had underlying cardiovascular disease – including high blood pressure and atherosclerosis – that were the most likely cause of his heart attack, according to Merck.

Commenting on the verdict, Global Insight analyst Gustav Ando said it was ‘highly significant’ for Merck, as it is estimated that up to a third of all the outstanding cases against the company involve plaintiffs claiming injury after it updated the labelling for Vioxx.

“The win may set a precedent that will prevent many of these cases from reaching the courts,” said Ando.

“Clearly, Merck’s chances of winning these cases depend substantively on the composition of the jury, as it has been presenting the same facts with entirely different outcomes in the lawsuits so far,” he continued.

This means that they will lose some cases but, in the long haul, Merck believes that it will maintain winning streaks that justify the lack of an overall settlement, said Ando.