A US judge yesterday overturned a $50-million damages award issued to a 62-year-old man who claimed that Merck & Co’s painkiller Vioxx was directly responsible for a heart attack he suffered in 2002.

Earlier this month, a jury ruled that Merck was negligent in the case of retired FBI agent Gerald Barnett - marking the first federal trial that did not go in the company's favour - and awarded $50 million in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages. But Merck claimed that both the verdict and the amount of damages awarded were "totally uncalled for,” and said it would appeal.

And with the latter point US District Court Judge Eldon Fallon certainly agreed. In a written ruling, he said that while the jury’s verdict of liability was not in question, the $50 million compensatory damages award is “excessive.” Consequently, he ordered a re-trial to agree a more reasonable amount, and Merck has since said it will ask the judge to reassess the liability ruling too.

This not only represents a small victory for the company, which is facing a deluge of lawsuits after pulling its multi-billion-dollar COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx (rofecoxib) from pharmacies in 2004 on fears of heart risks, but it also supports its defence strategy, which is built on dealing with each case individually as opposed to offering a “costly national settlement,” WBB Securities analyst Steve Brozak told Reuters.

The company is said to be wary of entering into any form of settlement agreement for fear that thousands more claimants would come forward - over and above the 16,000 or so that have done so already - and inflate the cost of damages.

But Merck still faces around 14,200 liability lawsuits from patients who took Vioxx, according to media reports, and analysts have suggested that liability could reach $50 billion.