March 20, 2006

Vioxx plaintiff weakened by heart attack: daughter

By Jon Hurdle

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey (Reuters) - The daughter of a man who blames Merck & Co.'s Vioxx arthritis medicine for his heart attack cried on the witness stand on Monday as she told a New Jersey court that her father had lost much of his strength since the June 2003 attack.

In emotional testimony lasting about 30 minutes, Jackie Cona, 23, said her father Thomas Cona had been athletic and had played an active role in her childhood and that of her sister Jamie, 28. But his heart attack had left him weak and unable to participate in normal family activities.

"He's like my grandfather, that's not my dad," she said, tearfully, in response to questioning from one of Cona's attorneys, Benedict Morelli.

Jackie Cona, a graduate student of speech therapy, told the jury of seven women and two men that her father now can't walk more than about 25 feet without resting, and sometimes takes morning naps, which he would never have done before his heart attack.

Thomas Cona, 59, and John McDarby, 77, are suing Merck in the latest product-liability suit over Vioxx, which the company voluntarily withdrew in September 2004 after a study showed the risk of heart attack and stroke doubled in patients who took the drug for at least 18 months.

Both Cona and McDarby took the pain drug for more than 18 months.

Cona, an avid golfer, told the court last week that he had returned to the golf course 10 days after his heart attack, and acknowledged that he had played golf 57 times during the remainder of 2003, and more than 60 times in both 2004 and 2005.

On the day of Cona's heart attack, his daughter said she visited him in the hospital. "He was white as a ghost, tubes everywhere, IVs, bags hanging," she told jurors in Atlantic County Superior Court.

"Every time that monitor went off, my heart kind of jumped because I had never been in a hospital before," she told the court. "I could see in his eyes he was scared. I just remember him saying, 'I'm just too young for this."'

At the end of testimony in which she often struggled to keep her composure, Jackie Cona said she faces the possibility that her father may not live to see her married. "My dad might not be able to walk me down the aisle," she cried.

Almost 10,000 people have filed lawsuits against Merck, claiming the company was long aware of heart risks associated with Vioxx but failed to adequately warn users of its dangers because it put profits before safety.

Merck has said it will fight each case.

This trial -- the second state trial in New Jersey, where about half the cases have been filed -- is the first to hear cases of long-term Vioxx users.

In the first New Jersey trial, an Atlantic City jury last year denied a claim by Idaho postal worker Frederick Humeston that Vioxx had caused his heart attack.

Jurors said after the trial they thought Humeston's attack had been caused by his preexisting health problems rather than by Vioxx.

Only one plaintiff has so far won a Vioxx suit. A Texas jury awarded $253 million last August to the widow of a Wal-Mart worker who had taken Vioxx and died from a heart attack. Merck is appealing that verdict.

Cona's lead attorney, Mark Lanier, won the Texas case.