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1st federal Vioxx trial focuses on Fla. man's death

HOUSTON -- A lawyer representing the widow of man who claims that Merck & Co.'s Vioxx caused her husband's death argued yesterday that taking the pain reliever for one month was enough to cause the 53-year-old man's heart attack.

Merck countered in opening statements at the first federal Vioxx trial that its extensive studies of the painkiller before introducing it in 1999 showed no evidence it caused heart attacks with short-term use, and that heart disease, not Vioxx, led to Richard Irvin's death.

Unlike the two previous state-level cases where Merck emerged with a loss and then a win after several weeks, the federal case before US District Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans got off to a quick start.

It took less than two hours to pick a jury of five men and four women, three of whom are alternates. Opening statements for the plaintiff -- Irvin's widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett -- took less than an hour and Merck's opening didn't take much longer.

The case is in Houston rather than its original venue of New Orleans because of damage from Hurricane Katrina. Jurors will be asked to decide whether Vioxx contributed to the fatal heart attack Irvin suffered in May 2001. Irvin, a manager of a wholesale seafood distributor in St. Augustine, Fla., had been taking the drug for about a month to alleviate back pain when his co-workers found him dead at his desk.

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