Court orders review of Vioxx class suit

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vioxxTRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A New Jersey appellate court panel on Tuesday opened the door to a potential class action lawsuit against Merck & Co. on behalf of people who took its now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx and want the company to pay for tests to detect possible heart ailments.

The ruling by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey came as jury selection began in Atlantic City for the next product liability trial over Merck's one-time blockbuster arthritis pill.

That trial, before Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, is slated to begin with opening arguments Monday. It includes two plaintiffs: the son of a man who died of a heart attack after taking Vioxx and a retrial for a man who survived a heart attack, lost his first trial against Merck and was granted a new trial because of new evidence.

The ruling by a three-judge panel overturned a lower court decision in a case that sought to include patients who have not suffered medical problems but took Vioxx for at least six consecutive weeks before Whitehouse Station-based Merck pulled the drug from the market. That move in 2004 came after Merck's own research showed Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Tuesday's decision said the lower court dismissing the case "prematurely terminated plaintiffs' opportunity" to prove they have a legal claim.

Ted Mayer, a Merck lawyer, said in a statement that the appellate ruling only "instructs a lower court to reconsider the validity of plaintiffs' claims after more fact gathering is completed."

"There is no medical science supporting the plaintiffs' position that they need to be monitored for cardiovascular conditions two years after Vioxx was voluntarily taken off the market," Mayer stated.

He said Merck is considering asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the appellate ruling.

Merck faces more than 27,000 personal injury lawsuits over Vioxx, plus 265 potential class-action suits. At least 14,000 additional plaintiffs have entered agreements with Merck suspending the time limit for lawsuits.

In midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Merck shares were up 20 cents at $44.99.

source - AP