A prominent physician at Stanford University Medical Center, who accused Merck & Co. of infringing on academic discourse by trying to stifle and intimidate doctors it considered critics, is slated to be deposed on Friday after being subpoenaed by the plaintiff lawyers.
Dr. James F. Fries expressed his concerns about Merck’s behavior, including suppressing Vioxx data, to the company’s then Chief Executive Raymond Gilmartin in a letter dated Jan. 9, 2001. He wrote that Merck has been trying to “systematically downplay some unusual side effect patterns of Vioxx” and that its employees have “systematically attacked those investigators or speakers who expressed what Merck staff felt were critical opinions in a manner which seriously impinges on academic freedoms.”
Merck took Vioxx off the market in Sept. 2004 after a study showed it doubled patients’ risk of heart attack and strokes after 18 months of use. Roughly 13,000 Vioxx-related lawsuits have been filed against Merck and a trial is currently under way in Atlantic City, N.J. So far, Merck has won three cases and lost three.
One of the attorneys who will be taking the deposition, said the goal of the testimony is to illustrate to juries how aggressively and unprofessionally Merck acted as it attempted to hide Vioxx’s side effects. He said some of judges overseeing cases either haven’t let the letter enter evidence or only allowed a portion of its contents. He hopes the testimony will be admitted so jurors can get a full picture of Merck’s actions.
In the letter, Fries said he received a call on a Saturday at home from Merck executive Dr. Louis Sherwood who complained that Dr. Gurkirpal Singh was giving lectures with an anti-Merck, anti-Vioxx bias. Fries said he investigated Singh’s presentation and there was no bias.
Fries also noted seven other examples of Merck complaining to an investigator’s superior, alleging an anti-Vioxx bias. He called them “respected investigators with long experience and high integrity” and noted that some believed Merck’s actions had hurt their careers.
This is at least the third time plaintiffs have subpoenaed respected physicians to give depositions. Testimony has been given by prominent cardiologist and Vioxx critic Dr. Eric Topol and FDA whistleblower Dr. David Graham.
Some legal professors think that witnesses who have been forced to testify carry more weight than those who receive handsome payments for their court appearances.
Fries, Stanford and Merck didn’t immediately return calls for comment.