ANGLETON, Texas -- A judge gave final instructions to jurors who have listened to more than a month of medical jargon-filled testimony about Merck & Co.'s Vioxx and whether it led to the 2001 death of a Texas man.
More than 200 lawyers and other observers filled a small-town courtroom here yesterday to hear the last word from Merck's legal team and plaintiff's attorney Mark Lanier in closing arguments before jurors begin deliberations.
The seven-man, five-woman panel heard several hours of closing arguments from both sides, then left for the day, slated to begin deliberations today.
State District Judge Ben Hardin first read instructions to the panel.
''Do not let bias, prejudice, or sympathy play any part in your deliberations," Hardin said.
The trial, which began July 14 with opening statements, has drawn national attention from pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, consumers, and stock analysts as the first of several tests of what lies ahead for the New Jersey drug maker.
Merck has vowed to fight the more than 4,200 state and federal Vioxx-related lawsuits pending across the country.
Merck took Vioxx off the market in September when a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. The onetime $2.5 billion seller went on the market in 1999 and was taken by 20 million people when available to consumers.
The plaintiff, Carol Ernst, alleges Vioxx triggered her husband's death just one month shy of their first wedding anniversary after he took the drug for eight months to ease pain in his hands.
She also alleges Merck knew for years before pulling Vioxx from the market that the drug had cardiovascular dangers, but downplayed those concerns in favor of profits. Merck counters that it acted responsibly, disclosed research, and believed Vioxx was safe until the study that prompted its withdrawal came along.
The first three questions on the jury's verdict form involve whether Vioxx was a cause of Robert Ernst's death. Jurors don't have to pinpoint Vioxx as the sole cause to give an affirmative answer.
If one or more garners a unanimous ''yes," jurors proceed to the remaining three questions involving financial damages. If the panel decides to award Carol Ernst economic damages for her husband's lost earnings and noneconomic damages for mental anguish and loss of companionship, jurors also can consider whether to tack on punitive damages.
In Texas, punitive damages are capped at two times the amount of economic damages and up to $750,000 on top of noneconomic damages.