ATLANTIC CITY -- A product liability trial focused on whether the painkiller Vioxx caused a man's heart attack started yesterday, with his lawyer telling jurors the drug's maker put profits over safety. Merck & Co., the drug's manufacturer, asserted other causes were to blame.
Chris Seeger, lead attorney for 60-year-old Frederick Humeston, a Boise, Idaho, postal worker, said Humeston was a healthy, active Vietnam veteran who enjoyed hiking until he was stricken two months after his doctor prescribed Vioxx to relieve pain from a war injury.
Merck knew the drug had links to increased incidence of heart attacks long before Humeston's Sept. 2001 heart attack but didn't disclose it, Seeger said in his 90-minute opening statement.
''Did they issue a 'Dear Doctor' letter? No. Did they warn patients? No, they didn't do that either. Did they change the label? No, they didn't," he said.
Under pressure to introduce new drugs because its patents on others were about to expire, Merck rushed Vioxx to market, cutting the customary development time in half, throwing a $1 million party for 3,500 sales associates to launch it and spending $100 million on advertising, Seeger told the jury. ''The survival of the company" was on the line at the time of the drug's 1999 debut, he said.
But Merck attorney Diane Sullivan countered that Humeston's physical condition and other risk factors were to blame, not Vioxx. She said the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company had published studies about safety risks and notified the Food and Drug Administration of their findings.
Shares of Merck rose 3 cents to $28.70 on the New York Stock Exchange.