Merck names outsider to new top global post as its Vioxx court battles continue

In a major shift at a beleaguered Merck, CEO Richard Clark has broken with the company tradition of hiring from within to name GE Healthcare Bio-Sciences CEO Peter Loescher to the newly created position of president, global human health. Beginning May 1, Loescher will oversee more than 35,000 Merck employees and have direct responsibility for the company’s four marketing and sales divisions—US Human Health, Human Health Asia Pacific, Human Health Intercontinental (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Canada and Latin America) and Merck Vaccines. Additionally, Loescher will be responsible for preparing, launching and marketing new products, the performance of existing Merck products and the company’s marketing and sales operations worldwide. “Merck was once at the pinnacle of the pharmaceutical industry, and it is clear to me that Dick Clark, the Merck Board and management team are committed to returning the company to that position,” Loescher said. Meanwhile, Merck suffered a setback Wednesday as a New Jersey jury found the company failed to warn consumers of safety issues surrounding its withdrawn pain medication Vioxx and held the drug maker liable for the heart attack of one of two plaintiffs, awarding him $4.5 million in damages. The jury found Merck committed consumer fraud in both cases by misrepresenting Vioxx’s cardiovascular risks to doctors and intentionally hiding or omitting information when marketing the drug. A second phase of the trial began Thursday, in which the jury will consider punitive damages Merck should pay to the plaintiff whose heart attack, it was found, was caused by Vioxx. To win punitive damages, plaintiff’s attorneys will have to prove that Merck intentionally misled the FDA. Meanwhile, a New Orleans man has dropped his federal lawsuit claiming Vioxx caused his heart attack, in part because a judge refused to delay the trial, scheduled June 12. According to the Associated Press, plaintiff Ellis Maximo Diaz’ attorney, Bonnie Zakotnik, said there is no way she can go through all the available documents from Merck by June 12. She asked the US District Judge, Eldon Fallon, to delay the trial until the fall, but he refused. Diaz, a retired medical photographer, had taken Vioxx for 19 months before his heart attack in May 2004. Merck faces more than 9,200 lawsuits over Vioxx. Three cases have gone to trial. In August 2005, a jury in Texas awarded $253 million to the widow of a man who died while taking Vioxx. In November 2005, Merck prevailed in a New Jersey State Court case. In December 2006, a federal judge declared a mistrial after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.