The federal trial in the USA against Merck & Co over injury allegedly caused by Vioxx kicked off yesterday, and looks set for a speedy conclusion after Judge Eldon Fallon said he wanted to wrap the case up in two weeks.

The lawsuit has been brought by the widow of Richard Irvin, a 53-year-old man who died of a heart attack after taking Vioxx (rofecoxib) for about a month to relieve back pain. Her lawyers maintain that Vioxx is the cause of his heart attack.

In its opening comments Merck’s legal team reiterated its position that there is no evidence that short-term use of Vioxx raises the risk of a heart attack. Previously the drugmaker has maintained that risk is elevated only in patients who take the drug for at least 18 months. Underlying heart disease, not the drug itself, is responsible for Irvin’s death, it claims.

Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after a long-term study showed the drug doubled risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer.

So far, the score sheet for Merck in its civil drug liability trials concerning Vioxx reads ‘won one, lost one’. The firm won a case earlier this month involving a man who had taken the drug for around two months, but lost a case tried in August in which the patient had taken Vioxx over a longer period. It was ordered to pay damages of $253 million dollars, although this was subsequently cut to $26 million because of state capping rules and the case has now gone to appeal.

Analysts have suggested the Vioxx litigation could cost Merck up to $50 billion: the company is facing 6,400 individual lawsuits, plus 160 class action suits.

UK cases dead?

Meanwhile, UK Vioxx claimants have failed in their bid to receive legal aid to be able to pursue claims against Merck, and this could spell the end of litigation in the UK, according to Martyn Day of legal firm Leigh Day & Co. 500 people in the UK had been seeking compensation from the US firm.

Losing the appeal against the refusal to grant legal aid, coupled with a denial of the insurance needed in order to bring their cases on a no-win, no-fee basis, has likely made litigation too costly and risky for claimants, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.

Some UK claimants are trying to bring their cases in the USA, but attempts by Merck & Co to have foreign claims brought there rejected are thought to have a real chance of success, said Day. He believes the firm will settle the Vioxx cases being brought in the USA.