Despite the company’s attempts to get a postponement [[05/07/05a]], the first wrongful death trial associated with Merck & Co’s painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib), withdrawn from the market last year [[01/10/04a]], has started with jury selection now underway.

Some 120 potential jurors have been filling out a questionnaire with more than 100 posers which cover a wide range of topics, though reporters have drawn attention to two questions in particular, namely: “Corporate executives may lie under oath to protect the company’s profits and to increase salaries and bonuses,” and “I am sometimes outraged at the conduct of companies that make prescription medicines.” They are also being asked whether “our system of lawsuits needs to be changed” or if they “agree with the use of punitive damages to punish a corporation for outrageous conduct.”

The jurors are being chosen in the small town of Angleton, Texas, to hear the case of 59-year-old athlete Robert Ernst, the Associated Press reports. His widow, Carol Ernst, alleges her husband took Vioxx for about eight months to ease pain and the drug caused him to die of an arrhythmia, a claim that Merck denies. The firm is also fighting the accusation that it knew about the dangers of Vioxx long before it was taken off the market.

The potential jurors face further questions later today (Wednesday) and the judge may still delay the trial if an unbiased jury cannot be agreed on. The importance of this trial cannot be underestimated as it is the first of thousands of lawsuits Merck faces over Vioxx and could set a precedent as to how the others are handled.