Shares in Merck & Co faltered again on the New York Stock Exchange Friday after a judge went against the US giant in the first civil trial of its one-time blockbuster painkiller, Vioxx (rofecoxib) [[01/10/04a]]. The judge found Merck to be negligent in the death of Robert Ernst, who took Vioxx for tendonitis and died suddenly in his sleep, awarding his widow more than $250 million dollars.

Vioxx was pulled from the market last year after evidence was unveiled of a doubling in the risk of heart attack and stroke amongst patients who took the drug for longer than 18 months. Merck has since faced accusations that its marketing of Vioxx was fraudulent and misrepresented the drug’s safety and efficacy, and that it manipulated trials to boost the compound’s safety profile [[03/08/05b]], [[12/08/05c]]

Shares in Merck fell from the $30 dollar mark to just $28 dollars on Friday, as observers feared a precedent has been set for the more than 4,000 lawsuits lined up against Merck. Not surprisingly, the trial has been the focus of intense speculation, particularly after the plaintiff’s lawyer called Mr Ernst’s coroner to the stand: Dr Maria Araneta had originally stated that Mr Ernst’s death was caused by arrhythmia and clogged arteries, but changed her mind and testified instead that he may have died from a heart attack but, because of the suddenness of his death, the classic signs of damage were not in evidence [[01/08/05a]], [[11/08/05c]].

The US giant says the case presented to the jury was “fundamentally flawed” because it was “allowed to hear testimony that was not based on reliable science and that was irrelevant.” It added: “There is no reliable evidence that shows Vioxx causes cardiac arrhythmias, which an autopsy showed was the cause of Mr Ernst’s death, along with coronary atherosclerosis.”

Merck has said it will appeal the decision and it is widely expected that the punitive portion of the damages awarded – some $229 million – could be whittled down to as little as $2 million under recently introduced state limitations, even if the verdict were upheld.