Merck wraps up defense in N.J. Vioxx case
Merck ends defense in latest Vioxx case, closing arguments to begin Monday

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Merck & Co. wrapped up its defense in the latest Vioxx product liability trial on Thursday with testimony from a psychiatrist who said one of the plaintiffs who blames the painkiller for his heart attack never mentioned taking it when discussing his medical history.

Dr. Margaret Harbison, who treated plaintiff Thomas Cona for about four years beginning in August 2000, said in a videotaped testimony that Cona never told her he took Vioxx to treat back pain.

Harbison also quoted from her medical records that said Cona was "feeling good," his family life was good and he was playing golf three months after his June 2003 heart attack.

That contradicted earlier testimony from his daughter that Cona was weak and unable to participate in family activities after his heart attack.

The plaintiff's lawyers had earlier asked the court to ban the testimony, saying some of Harbison's comments would be prejudicial to the jury.

Under videotaped questioning from Cona's attorney, Mark Lanier, Harbison admitted that Merck would likely get more detailed information on his pain medications from the doctors who were treating that condition.

Merck (down $0.21 to $35.59, Research), a drug maker based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., is being sued by Cona, 59, and John McDarby, 77, both long-term former Vioxx users who blame the drug for their heart attacks.

Their lawsuits are among nearly 10,000 Vioxx product liability suits that have been filed against Merck since it withdrew the $2.5 billion-a-year pain drug from the market in September of 2004. The drug was pulled from the market after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients who took it for at least 18 months. This trial in New Jersey state court is the first to involve long-term Vioxx users.

Lanier is the only attorney so far to have beaten Merck in a Vioxx trial, winning a $253 million jury award for a Texas widow of a Vioxx user last August, though the damages are capped by state law to a fraction of the award. Subsequent trials in state and federal courts have gone in Merck's favor.

The plaintiffs say Merck knew the drug increased heart risks long before it withdrew the medicine from the market, but failed to adequately warn users because it placed profits ahead of safety.

"I think the evidence has showed that Merck acted responsibly in testing the medication before it was approved for market and continued to test the medicine after approval and that all the information was shared with the FDA," Merck spokesman Chuck Harrell said outside the courtroom.

Asked for a comment as the trial drew to a close, Lanier said, "I'd rather be sitting in my chair than Merck's."

Closing arguments for the trial, which started on March 6, are set to begin on Monday.

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