US pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co has won a high-profile court case in New Jersey over its arthritis painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib).

The jury in the trial involving 60-year-old postal worker Frederick “Mike” Humeston, who suffered a heart attack in 2001 that he blamed on Vioxx, found that Merck provided adequate warnings about the potential health risks with Vioxx, which was withdrawn from the market in September 2004 after being linked to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. It also said Merck was not guilty of misleading consumers.

Some analysts have suggested that the Vioxx litigation could cost the company up to $50 billion.

Things had looked particularly rocky for Merck in Humeston case, after the judge threw out the testimony of one of Merck’s expert witnesses [[10/10/05b]]. But in the end the jury seemed to be swayed by Humeston’s medical history, which showed that he was already at risk of a heart attack, and the fact that that he had taken Vioxx intermittently and for a short time.

This is the second case in the Vioxx litigation to reach a verdict. In August, the jury ruled that Vioxx did contribute to the death of Robert Ernst and ordered the drugmaker to pay $253 million dollars [[22/08/05a]] to his widow, although this was subsequently cut to $26 million because of state capping rules. Merck is appealing the earlier judgement.

The verdict could dissuade at least some of the 6,400 cases faced by Merck over Vioxx – for example those in which the drug was used for only a short time –from going ahead, according to a report in the New York Times, citing legal experts. But others insisted that yesterday’s ruling did not set a legal precedent that would affect future litigation.

Christopher Placitella of Cohen, Placitella & Roth, one of the attorneys involved in the Ernst case, said: "There will be wins and losses during the course of this litigation for both sides, depending upon the facts as presented in individual cases."

The next case, in Houston, is due to come to trial on November 28, with others scheduled for February, March and April 2006. In California, a single trial involving about 1,000 cases is scheduled for June.