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Federal Trial on Vioxx Opens in Houston

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In today's business news, a million-dollar fuel cell car, plus drugmaker Merck.

Merck will again defend the safety of its painkiller Vioxx today, this time in a federal court in Houston. It the third liability case against Vioxx to go to trial. The last two were in state court. The plaintiff prevailed in one; Merck in the other. The company withdrew Vioxx from the market last year after a study showed the painkiller poses heart risk. NPR's Snigdha Prakash reports from Houston.

SNIGDHA PRAKASH reporting:

At last count, Merck faced close to 7,000 lawsuits related to Vioxx and the number keeps growing. Two judges will play critical roles in how these cases play out. One is a state court judge in Merck's home state of New Jersey, and the other is US District Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans. Fallon has control of all the federal Vioxx lawsuits, and he is hearing the case that starts in Houston today. Fallon has relocated here from New Orleans ever since Hurricane Katrina.

Today's trial is the first of four Vioxx trials Judge Fallon has scheduled for the next few months. The four cases are intended to represent the range of alleged harms caused by Vioxx. Fallon is following a strategy he's used before to push plaintiffs and drugmakers to the settlement table by trying representative cases and letting their outcomes in court set a price tag for an overall settlement. He's doing this despite Merck's insistence that it will not settle and that the company will take every case to court.

The central scientific issue in today's case will be whether short-term use of Vioxx can cause heart attacks. Plaintiff Evelyn Irvin Plunket alleges that her husband, Dickie, suffered a fatal heart attack in 2001 after using Vioxx for less than a month. Drugmaker Merck will argue that Vioxx has been proven risky only after 18 months of use. A large-scale study proved that last year. Meanwhile, plaintiff's lawyers will point to scores of other previous studies, also done by Merck, which they say showed Vioxx was risky after only a short period of use. Judge Fallon has promised a speedy trial. Snigdha Prakash, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Snighda Prakash