After three years of dragging its feet and insisting it would try “one case at a time”, the giant pharmaceutical manufacturer, Merck, has done an about face and agreed to a global settlement of $4.85 billion to resolve the bulk of personal injury and wrongful death cases (approximately 27,000) filed against it for its product, Vioxx.
Vioxx, originally developed in 2000 to be a safer pain reliever over older medications such as ibuprofen and aspirin, came under fire by 2001, as patient deaths due to heart attacks after taking Vioxx came flooding in.
On September 30, 2004 Merck recalled Vioxx. And thus began a three year long struggle between the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the attorneys for the plaintiffs numbering approximately 27,000. Sixty thousand Americans are believed to have died from heart attacks after taking this drug, and twice as many have suffered strokes and serious bone injuries.
More than 1,800 lawsuits have been filed against Merck in southern California alone. However,
Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Victoria Chaney, narrowed the first set of cases to 36 eliminating all but victims of myocardial infarction, an ailment similar to a heart attack.
From the beginning Merck’s strategy was to slow down the legal process by fighting one case at a time. Their strategy seemed to be working as they won 8 out of 10 cases. But the company faced large verdicts in the cases it had lost. In one particular case, Carol Ernst, whose husband, Robert, died after taking Vioxx for less than a year was awarded $253.5 million—although Texas laws on punitive damages reduced that amount to $26.1 million.
To receive settlements, plaintiffs will not be required to prove that Vioxx caused their heart attacks or strokes. But they, or their families, will have to provide evidence that they did suffer a heart attack or stroke, and that the attack or stroke occurred less than 14 days after they last took Vioxx. Also, that they had taken Vioxx for at least 30 days. People who took Vioxx for longer, who had fewer other risk factors, and who suffered more severe problems will receive larger payments than people who meet only the minimum criteria. The average payment to plaintiffs will be between $100,000 and $120,000.
“Merck seems to have played hardball, and the nature of the settlement reached reflects that,” said one law professor from Yale. “The projected liabilities for them were predicted to be much, much higher.”