NEW JERSEY :Merck’s first victory in the massive litigation over its painkiller Vioxx gives the pharmaceutical company a psychological lift and a short-term stock boost, and also plenty of uncertainty as it still faces thousands of future lawsuits.

What is certain, given Merck’s repeated assertions that it will fight the thousands of Vioxx suits one by one, is that the world’s fifth-biggest drug maker will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defend itself as legal costs mount.

Barbara Ryan, pharmaceuticals analyst at Deutsche Bank North America, estimated the New Jersey-based company’s liability over Vioxx at $15bn to $30bn on Thursday, shortly after a state Superior Court jury in Atlantic City found Merck properly warned consumers about risks with Vioxx and was not liable for an Idaho man’s ’01 heart attack.

“I do think that Merck has a good defense in the litigation,” she said. “It’s still going to be a marathon.” The verdict came two-and-a-half months after Merck loss a Vioxx case in Texas. The split verdicts mean it will probably take at least several more cases before lawyers can determine if there are any precedents to be followed in future litigation. The first federal Vioxx trial is scheduled to start on November 28 in Houston.

Ryan and some other analysts said Merck’s win might discourage some future lawsuits by former Vioxx users who had cases similar to Frederick “Mike” Humeston, a Boise, Idaho, postal worker. That would include people who survived and who took the drug for less than 18 months — the point at which Merck’s own research shows Vioxx use doubled risk of heart attack and stroke.

Independent healthcare analyst Hemant Shah of HKS in Warren, New Jersey, said Thursday’s verdict was more a psychological boost than anything else for Merck. “I don’t think it’s going to have any immediate impact” on the number of new suits filed, he said. “There are attorneys who are looking for work and plaintiffs don’t have to front any of the legal costs. ”

However, Shah said that if enough future cases end with a Merck win. Edwards & Sons analyst Albert Rauch wrote in a research note that with Merck’s New Jersey victory, lawyers may focus future cases on other states. LINDA A JOHNSON

AP[ SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 05, 2005 03:09:50 AM]