NEW ORLEANS -- A federal jury handed Merck & Co. a major victory when it cleared the drug maker of any responsibility in the death of a 53-year-old Florida man who had a heart attack after taking its once popular painkiller Vioxx for less than a month.
This was the second court victory for Merck, and the first in a federal court. The company had argued in this case that plaintiff lawyers never proved any link between Vioxx and the heart attack Richard Irvin suffered in 2001. Merck's lawyers contended Irvin's age, gender, and diet all put him at risk for heart attacks
It was also the second time jurors heard the case brought by Irvin's family. In Houston, where the case was heard in November and December because of damage from Hurricane Katrina, jurors were unable to reach a verdict. Merck won a state case in New Jersey last year while it lost one in Texas.
Irvin's widow, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett; the youngest of their three daughters, Ashley Irvin; and their only son, Richard Irvin III, all testified that Irvin's health was excellent until his heart attack. The jury deliberated for 3 hours and 40 minutes.
Plunkett left the courtroom in tears without talking to reporters.
''Obviously the family is very upset," said her attorney, Andy Birchfield. Phil Beck, a lawyer for Merck, said he believes the verdict indicates the jury found ''that the Merck scientists lived up to their legal and ethical responsibilities when manufacturing and marketing Vioxx and making the decision to take Vioxx off the market."
Shares of Merck rose 90 cents, or 2.5 percent, in after-hours trading.
The case could be the first indication of outcomes in federal court, generally seen as more disciplined and friendly to businesses than state courts. As of the end of December, Merck faced more than 9,600 state and federal lawsuits.
US District Judge Eldon Fallon has been assigned to handle pretrial matters for all 4,000-plus federal cases, and has said he hopes to work out a settlement after the first four are tried.