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Merck wins a Vioxx lawsuit

But 18,000 cases pending and firm vows to fight all

NEW ORLEANS -- Merck & Co. is not liable for the heart attack of a Kentucky man who took the company's Vioxx painkiller for less than five months, a federal jury said yesterday.

Robert Garry Smith, 56, a manager at a chemical plant, began taking Vioxx in 2002, after the medication's label was changed to reflect a study's results that use of the drug caused increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Smith had a heart attack in February 2003.

``The jury's decision confirms that Merck acted responsibly and that Vioxx was not the cause of Mr. Smith's heart attack," company lawyer Phil Beck said after the verdict was delivered.

The victory may help Merck deflect future lawsuits as a two-year deadline for filing product-liability claims expires in most states.

Merck, the fourth-biggest drug maker in the United States, withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004 when another study showed that it doubled the risk of heart attacks after 18 months of use.

The Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company still faces more than 18,000 lawsuits over the drug and has vowed to contest each one.

Merck has set aside almost $1 billion to fight the suits.

Vioxx generated about $2.5 billion a year in annual sales in the five years that it was on the market.

The nine previous suits that were tried were filed by people who took the pill before the label was changed.

The company won five of the lawsuits and lost four, with one victory overturned last month.

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