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Jury selected in N.J. Vioxx trial
Jury selected, but a key witness for Merck was made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
September 13, 2005: 3:34 PM EDT
By Aaron Smith, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The jury has been selected in the second Vioxx civil case and opening arguments begin Wednesday in New Jersey superior court.

Six jurors and four alternates were selected on Tuesday, including seven women and three men, said Chris Morgan, law clerk for Judge Carol Higbee. Jurors in the Atlantic City trial include a lawyer, a teacher, an accountant and a casino worker.

But while all the jurors are accounted, one of Merck's key witnesses can't make the trial because his New Orleans home and business are flooded and his family displaced.

Dr. Merlin Wilson, a rheumatologist who has prescribed Vioxx, can't attend the trial that started in Atlantic City on Monday because his practice and his home are underwater, according to court papers.

"I lost two cars and my pets are gone," wrote Dr. Wilson in papers filed in New Jersey Superior Court, noting that his home and practice are under at least six feet of water. "While my family and I fortunately evacuated to Houston, Texas prior to the hurricane's arrival, we lost the bulk of our clothes and personal belongings."

Merck (down $0.39 to $28.77, Research), the second-largest U.S. drug maker, faces about 5,000 lawsuits from former Vioxx patients and their families. Merck withdrew the arthritis painkiller from the market on Sept. 30, 2004 after a study showed increased risk of heart attack in patients who took the drug for more than 18 months. Merck has vowed not to settle and to fight the cases one by one, if necessary.

Merck lost its first suit, a wrongful death case, in Angleton, Texas, where plaintiff Carol Ernst was awarded $243 million by the jury for the 2001 death of her husband, a Vioxx patient. Her damages were more than Texas law allows so she will probably receive less. In New Jersey, Merck is being sued by Frederick Humeston, a postal worker and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran from Idaho who suffered a non-fatal heart attack in 2001 while a Vioxx patient.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has a replacement witness, Dr. David Silver, but the plaintiff's firm, Seeger Weiss of Newark, has filed a motion against allowing the doctor to testify, according to court papers. The judge has not yet ruled on the motion, Merck said.

Merck considers the witness testimony "important to this case because it allows jurors to hear about the benefits of Vioxx and how important it was to doctors and patients," according to Merck's outside counsel, Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

Chris Seeger, the attorney representing Humeston, was not immediately available for comment.

This is not the first time the Vioxx trials have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina. The federal trials were being consolidated in New Orleans, but since the hurricane the cases have been handled out of Houston temporarily. The final site for federal trials has not been decided.

For more on Vioxx, click here.  Top of page

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