It was good news and bad news for Merck & Co on Friday, after a jury in New Jersey issued split verdicts in two cases regarding the US drugmaker’s embattled COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx (rofecoxib), which was taken off the market in 2004 because of heart risks.

A New Jersey jury ruled that, in the case of 44-year old Brian Hermans, Merck had given adequate warning over the health risks associated with Vioxx before his heart attack in 2002. But, in the case of Frederick Humeston, who suffered a heart attack in 2001, it found that adequate warning wasn’t provided. (Vioxx’ label was changed in 2002 to include stronger warnings about the drug’s risks to health.)

As a result, one of the two plaintiffs, Kathleen Hermans Messerschmidt, who filed suit on behalf of her brother, Brian Hermans, will not be able to seek compensatory or punitive damages in the second phase of the trial. Mr Humeston’s case, however, will now proceed to stage two, which will address the claim that his prescribing doctor would not have prescribed the had his doctor been warned differently. It also will address whether Vioxx was a substantial contributing factor in his heart attack, according to Merck.

27,000 to go

Merck faces more than 27,000 lawsuits over the COX-2 inhibitor, which pulled in sales of $2.5 billion in its hey-day. Overall, of the 28 plaintiffs whose cases have been tried in a court of law excluding these latest two, six claims have been dismissed, seven were withdrawn by the plaintiffs themselves, Merck has won in nine and lost in four (and is appealing or seeking judicial review in these cases). There have been three mistrials to date.