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Juror took loans from plaintiff in Texas Vioxx case

Merck lawyers seek documents to 'get to the bottom'

HARLINGEN, Texas -- Attorneys for Merck & Co. want to see bank and cellphone records that could show the extent of a juror's financial relationship with a plaintiff who won a $32 million verdict against the drug company in the death of a 71-year-old man who took Vioxx.

Jose Manuel Rios, a $22,000-a-year school janitor who served on the panel that found Merck liable for Leonel Garza's fatal heart attack after taking the painkiller Vioxx, testified in a post-trial deposition to borrowing up to $10,000 interest-free from Garza's widow, Felicia, the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Merck. He said the loans included $2,500 that was paid off just weeks before he was selected as a juror in the case.

He said Felicia Garza also loaned money to others in the community.

Tilden Katz, a spokesman for Merck's legal team, said Merck attorneys were hoping the documents would help them ``get to the bottom of" the financial relationship.

``Everyone is entitled to a fair trial," he said. ``A financial relationship with a juror raises a serious question as to whether the Garza trial was consistent with these vital principles."

Plaintiff attorney Joe Escobedo did not return a call for comment.

Rios produced cellphone records that showed calls from his number to Garza's. He told lawyers his wife, a teacher's aide, made the calls on school business. Merck lawyers say the timing of the calls, including evening calls made days after he received his jury summons and the day before jury selection, is ``highly suspicious."

Merck lawyers requested Rios's deposition in June, after a fellow school employee alerted the local attorney to the loans.

Oneida Saenz, a textbook data specialist for the Rio Grande City school district, said she observed the financial transactions beginning in the fall of 2003.

Saenz said that she spoke to Rios in March.

``He said, `I can't wait to get back to court,' and I said, `You don't want to get me started. You know you don't belong there,' " the affadavit reads.

The case, which ended in April, was the sixth to reach a verdict among more than 11,000 lawsuits involving the blockbuster painkiller . Plaintiff attorneys hailed it as the first in which a jury found short-term usage was one of the factors leading to a heart attack.

Merck attorneys said Leonel Garza only used the drug for a week, which wasn't long enough for it to cause heart attacks. Plaintiff attorneys said he took the drug for 17 days.

Garza was a smoker with a 20-year history of heart disease, but plaintiff attorneys said recent medical tests showed his veins to be clear and his heart attack risk to be low.

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