Merck & Co has come out fighting as preliminary papers were presented in the first US court case the company will face among the 2,500 or so lawsuits that have been filed concerning the COX-2 painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib), taken off the market last year after studies suggested it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in those who took the drug for more than 18 months [01/10/04a]].

The trial concerning the death of a 42-year-old man, Brad Rogers, brought by his widow Cheryl, who claims he died as a result of taking Vioxx, is set for May 23 in Clay County, Alabama but Merck is hoping the case will not get to court. The firm’s lawyers asked Judge John Rochester to dismiss the case and referred him to a filing made earlier this month which claims that the drug samples provided as evidence did not actually leave Merck’s possession until March 2002 – six months after Mr Rogers died [[14/04/05f]].

The company added there is no record that Mr Rogers ever took Vioxx, prompting Merck lawyer Mike Brock to state that claiming the drug was a factor in his death is “an impossibility.” The drug giant’s legal team has also released documents that show Mr Rogers had blood pressure and cholesterol problems.

Such a fiery start to proceedings has put the spotlight on Cheryl Rogers, who said she had been confused, that the samples she gave Merck belonged to her mother and that the lack of a record of Mr Rogers receiving Vioxx was a clerical error. Mrs Rogers’ lawyers then filed a brief, which says Merck is in violation of the provisions of a health privacy act as it has disclosed Mr Roger’s medical information. In addition, it filed a motion accusing Merck of conducting a smear campaign against their client, alleging that its actions are just an extension of its policy of intimidation of doctors who questioned Vioxx’s safety.

The widespread media coverage the case is getting is being less than kind to Merck and the firm’s stockholders are also voicing their disquiet. Following its annual meeting in front of 900 shareholders in North Branch, New Jersey, the firm issued a statement which said little about Vioxx, but news reports suggest that the meeting was not an uneventful one.

The Associated Press said that chief executive Raymond Gilmartin told the stockholders he was hearing from former Vioxx users who wanted the drug back on the market, but this did not impress one shareholder who was qouted as saying “you screwed up royally.”

The judge in Alabama will decide later this week whether to dismiss the case and if not, Merck could be in for a long, uncomfortable and hugely expensive ride.