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Vioxx marketing findings raise concerns

NEWARK -- Although a New Jersey jury spared Merck & Co. a double hit to the pocketbook, analysts are concerned that its negative findings on the marketing of Vioxx could continue to hurt the company as it defends itself against almost 10,000 lawsuits filed by users of the now-pulled arthritis drug.

Merck's Achilles' heel appears to be judgments that it failed to warn that Vioxx could cause heart attacks, lawyers and analysts said yesterday, a day after the jury gave a split verdict to two longtime Vioxx users who survived heart attacks.

However, Alan Klein, a lawyer who has defended another drug maker, said the outcome validated Merck's strategy of handling the litigation case by case, rather than settling, and would prompt some people to drop their lawsuits.

''You have to be very careful as a defendant not to be writing checks left and right," said Klein, who represented Interneuron in one of the first cases involving the diet drug known as fen-phen. ''My own view is that a lot of the Vioxx claims are meritless."

But Barbara Ryan, an analyst at Deutsche Bank North America, said with only a handful of Vioxx verdicts to date, it's too early to draw firm conclusions.

''This is a marathon, and we're sitting here analyzing the first few steps. I don't think it's going to tell you a lot," Ryan said. ''Each case will come out differently, even with the same facts."

The jury in Atlantic City overwhelmingly found Wednesday that Merck failed to warn the public about the risks of Vioxx and that the New Jersey-based company intentionally suppressed information linking the drug to cardiovascular problems.

But the jury found that Vioxx was a factor in the illness of just one of the users, John McDarby, 77, and awarded him $4.5 million in compensation.

The panel was considering additional awards for him yesterday.

The jury did not award significant damages to co-plaintiff Thomas Cona, 60.

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