Dozen from area part of Vioxx lawsuit

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Carl Slinkard's heart attack came without warning.

He was delivering fuel for MFA in July 2000 when pain he believed to be indigestion began. As he continued his deliveries, he said, the pain grew worse but he managed to get his truck back to the depot.

Then it really hit him. "It was a stabbing pain, like someone was sticking a red-hot steel rod through your chest," Slinkard said. "It felt like the weight of the truck was on my chest. I had trouble seeing, trouble breathing and sweat was shooting out of every pore."

It was 20 days before Slinkard's 40th birthday.

An ambulance rushed him to Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where he underwent angioplasty to unblock three arteries to his heart. A stent was installed to get around one of the blockages.

The father of two from Daisy had no history of heart ailments. He blames the heart attack on Vioxx, the drug Merck & Co. Inc. pulled from the market nearly a year ago because of strokes and heart attacks among patients.

And he's suing Merck in a lawsuit that includes 57 plaintiffs from across eastern Missouri, with a dozen from Southeast Missouri. The case is one of thousands filed against the giant drug firm. The lawsuits allege Merck knew long before pulling the drug from the market that it was dangerous yet did nothing to warn doctors or patients.

Slinkard took Vioxx for about a year. It was first prescribed, he said, by a doctor who treated a thumb he sprained while picking up a 100-pound spring at a truck parts business. The drug helped minor arthritis, he said, so he kept taking it after the thumb healed.

Other than the Vioxx, he said, he never took daily medication. Today, he has 11 different pills he takes regularly, including anti-depressants.

"When your doctor tells you a piece of your heart died, you worry about it constantly," Slinkard said. "You worry about how to take care of your family, the kids, the bills and how you are going to keep yourself alive."

Slinkard's case is one of more than 100 Vioxx lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Under federal legal rules, the cases -- along with most Vioxx cases in federal courts -- are being put under the control of a federal judge from Louisiana.

That allows for common work in all the cases, saving time and money for both the plaintiffs and for Merck, said Jerry Schlichter, Slinkard's St. Louis attorney.

Merck has lost one case in state court in Texas, a $253 million liability verdict that will be cut to $26 million because of state caps on punitive damages. Merck plans to appeal.

The second case to go to trial is underway in New Jersey. During testimony Friday, a Merck marketing executive defended the company's sales practices. David Anstice acknowledged during questioning by the plaintiff's attorney that he told the company's top doctor to stop contacting physicians who expressed concerns about the safety of the drug. The company doctor was the subject of complaints that he was intimidating those physicians.

The New Jersey case is being watched closely because it involves an Idaho postal worker who had a heart attack after using Vioxx for two months.

After the common work on the federal Vioxx cases, the lawsuits will likely be returned to their home jurisdictions for trial, Schlichter said. Slinkard's lawsuit, which includes family members of three people who died while taking the drug, would return to federal court in St. Louis.

"These are valid cases involving a drug that should not have been on the market," Schlichter said. "They were in competition with Celebrex. It was a race to get as many users as they could, and I believe they were blinded by their profit motive."

The first federal lawsuit to go to trial is scheduled for Nov. 28 in Houston, Texas. It involves a wrongful death claim that originated in Palm Beach, Fla.

Moving the cases to the court of U.S. district judge Eldon Fallon, the Louisiana judge, is fair to the plaintiffs as well as the company, said Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for the Merck defense team. The process will save money for both the company and those who are suing.

Merck is also pushing to move all the cases filed in state courts to the federal system. Fallon has extensive experience with cases involving scientific evidence and federal court rules are good guides for what should be allowed at trial, Jarrell said.

"We will vigorously defend each of these cases," Jarrell said. "We will defend each of these cases individually because they have different facts of causation. We are confident Vioxx was not a cause of injury or death."

The company didn't behave badly in marketing the drug, Jarrell said. "Merck acted appropriately in the development, labeling and marketing of Vioxx."

Before removing the drug from the market, Merck pushed Vioxx through an extensive television advertising campaign. Those ads reinforced Slinkard's determination to take the company to court.

"They spent billions of dollars pushing this drug," he said. "They knew it was causing problems, and they kept on. If they had pulled it as soon as they knew, that would be different."

Slinkard said he doesn't expect to get rich from the lawsuit. The most important thing he is looking for, he said, is security for his family.

"I don't feel a bit bad about suing these people," he said. "I am 45 years old and I am in a heck of a shape."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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