NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The third civil trial involving Vioxx, the arthritis painkiller that Merck pulled from the market last year, has been postponed up to six months, according to plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier.
Lanier, the Texas attorney who successfully sued Merck & Co., Inc. (down $0.11 to $26.94, Research) in the first Vioxx trial in August, said that the next Vioxx trial has been postponed from its original date of Oct. 24 until as late as April.
Lanier is representing family members of Anna Guerra in Texas Superior Court in Edinburgh, Texas. Guerra, a 39-year-old mother of two, died in 2001 of pulmonary embolism after taking Vioxx for two or three months, said Lanier. The family blames Vioxx for her death.
Pulmonary embolism is a sudden artery blockage that often results from a blood clot in the lung that travels from the leg, according the National Institutes of Health. Cause of death is crucial in the Vioxx cases, as Merck's lawyers have maintained from the beginning that Vioxx has not caused anyone's death. Also, Merck's lawyers have denied accusations that the company covered up information about the drug's health risks.
The Guerra case is Lanier's second wrongful death case against Merck and is the third case overall. On Aug. 22, a jury in an Angleton, Texas courtroom awarded Lanier's client Carol Ernst $253 million, though state laws will prevent her from collecting that amount. The plaintiff's husband, Robert Ernst, a 59-year-old marathon runner, was a Vioxx patient when he died in 2001 from a heart attack.
"I'm going to get more damages in the Guerra case than they did in the Ernst case," said Lanier. "I want Merck to see that Ernst was a conservative verdict. I'm going to spank them hard."
The second trial is currently underway in Atlantic City, N.J. and, unlike Lanier's cases, is not a wrongful death suit. Frederick Humeston, a Vietnam veteran and postal carrier from Boise, Idaho, sued Merck in the company's home state, where many of the cases have been filed. Humeston survived his 2001 heart attack, which occurred while he was a Vioxx patient.
Humeston blames Vioxx for his heart attack, though Merck's lawyers have said the drug did not trigger his attack and that Humeston has no evidence to back up his claim. Humeston's lawyer Chris Seeger said the case could go to the jury on Oct. 25 or 26.
At last count, Merck faced more than 5,000 lawsuits from former Vioxx patients or their surviving family members. Merck took Vioxx off the market on Sept. 30, 2004, after participants in a Vioxx study experienced "adverse cardiovascular events" compared to those taking a placebo. The painkiller was worth $2.5 billion in annual sales, or about one-tenth of the company's revenue, and the withdrawal triggered a one-third slide in stock value.
Many of the cases have been consolidated in federal court, originally filed through New Orleans. After that city was paralyzed by Hurricane Katrina, the cases were moved to Houston. The first federal trial is scheduled to begin there on Nov. 28.
To see what Merck has at stake in the Vioxx trials, click here.