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It has been three years since a 52-year-old woman died of a heart attack. Now the widower and pharmaceutical company are getting ready to fight out whether the painkiller Vioxx was the cause of her death. This is one of many personal injury lawsuits filed against the makers of Vioxx.

The jury selection has begun in the first Midwest trial over Vioxx, the arthritis medication that Merck & Co., took off the market in 2004 after research showed increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Both sides of the case along with observers are expecting this case to be watched closely to see for the first time how the legal wrangling over Vioxx plays out. Most notably being watched will be Madison County, who in recent years had tried to shed its reputation as a plaintiff paradise in big money-lawsuits.

Attorneys suing Merck for at least $50,000 in damages on each of the lawsuit’s eight counts say Schwaller had been taking Vioxx for more than 20 months before the Granite City woman died suddenly Aug. 8, 2003, after returning home with groceries. Driscoll, the family’s attorney, said the mother of two had no previous heart attacks, strokes or symptoms of congestive heart disease.

But Merck expects to prove what it has argued in previous trials involving Vioxx – that heart problems by certain plaintiffs, including Schwaller, were caused by pre-existing health issues, not Vioxx. The company also contends it properly warned doctors of possible complications from using the painkiller.

Merck has been hit with over 27,000 personal injury lawsuits and another 265 potential class action lawsuits alleging harm from taking Vioxx, amounting to billions of dollars in litigation. Merck, who has reserved $1.64 billion in its Vioxx legal defense fund has won most of the trials to date.

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