A US judge has given a plaintiff in a Vioxx product liability case a choice of a retrial or a significantly reduced award after ruling that compensatory damages awarded by a jury in his original trial were "grossly excessive".

Gerald Barnett, a former FBI agent, who had blamed Merck & Co's withdrawn painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib) for a heart attack he suffered in 2002, was originally awarded $50 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages by the jury at his first trial last August. However, shortly after the verdict was announced, the judge threw out the award and ordered a new trial on damages.

Now Judge Eldon Fallon, who is overseeing all federal Vioxx lawsuits, has offered the plaintiff the option of accepting $1.6 million in total or a new trial and media reports suggest that Mr Barnett is likely to accept.

The New Jersey-based drugmaker still intends to appeal the verdict against the company but Merck attorney Ted Mayer noted that “we are pleased the court found that the compensatory damages were excessive and bore no relationship to the evidence presented in trial". The company is still facing more than 27,000 Vioxx lawsuits.