Dozens of heart attack and stroke victims in Northeastern Pennsylvania are preparing to join the tidal wave of lawsuits against one of America’s largest drug companies.
So far, more than 5,000 people nationwide have sued Merck & Co. Inc., claiming the company concealed evidence that its wonder-drug, Vioxx, caused serious cardiovascular problems.
The popular pain-killer, introduced in 1999, was withdrawn by Merck in September 2004. Immediately, lawyers sought clients who may have been harmed by the drug.
And they found them.
In Kingston, the firm of Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn has evaluated about 150 users and is looking at about 30 potential cases, attorney David Aikens said.
In Scranton, the Foley Law Firm has lined up well over a dozen potential cases, firm president Thomas Foley Jr. said. Those cases include one local man who died from a blood clot after taking Vioxx for about 18 months.
Attorneys still are preparing those suits and said they intend to file them soon.
When they do, the cases will join a sea of litigation across the country.
It may be difficult for Vioxx users to decide which lawyer to choose. Local attorneys may be accessible and familiar, but they are likely to partner with large national firms that specialize in such cases. Some users may want to sign directly with a national firm.
“There are hundreds of lawyers involved, and there are thousands and thousands of cases,” Mr. Foley said.
It is not clear how many lawsuits Merck eventually could face. About 20 million people worldwide took Vioxx since it was introduced in 1999, and tens of thousands may have suffered related problems.
Many new cases were filed after Merck lost its first trial in August, suggesting future losses could bring even more claims forward.
To succeed in court, plaintiffs will have to prove that Vioxx caused their cardiovascular problems. To win big verdicts, they will have to prove further that Merck covered up the danger.
Setting the trend
Vioxx was among the first in a promising new class of painkillers known as COX-2 inhibitors, which block a particular enzyme that causes pain and swelling.
But after five years and 20 million patients, the dream fell apart. Tests became public revealing that Vioxx was linked to a higher rate of heart attack and stroke, and the drug was withdrawn.
Local Vioxx users and attorneys are preparing lawsuits now, but the first trials already are setting tone and precedent.
The first Vioxx case, tried near Houston, Texas, ended Aug. 19 with a jury verdict of $253.4 million for the widow of a Vioxx user. The award will be reduced to about $26 million under a Texas law that caps jury awards for non-economic damages, commonly known as “pain and suffering” damages.
Although it was reduced and will be appealed, the initial reward sent Merck a troubling omen of how thousands of other cases may play out.
The stakes are even higher for the second trial, now underway on Merck’s home turf in Atlantic City, N.J. That case involves a 60-year-old postal carrier and Vietnam War veteran who suffered a heart attack in 2001.
About half of all the Vioxx-related cases will be tried in that court, near Merck’s corporate headquarters in Whitehouse Station, N.J. That makes the first New Jersey trial an important test case.
Another major verdict against Merck would be blood in the water for Vioxx users who have not filed cases yet, said Mark Pruner, vice president of RD Legal Funding, which finances plaintiffs attorneys for lawsuits.
The initial rush of advertising to recruit clients would be duplicated, and new clients would rush to get their share of money, Mr. Pruner said.
Several more punishing losses could force the company to consider settling some types of cases.
Verdicts not only cost millions of dollars, they also perpetuate the controversy surrounding the company. Merck’s stock price has dropped under $28, down from $43 before the Vioxx withdrawal last September.
After the first verdict, Merck General Counsel Kenneth Frazier said the company did not plan to seek settlements and would challenge every case.
That doesn’t mean a settlement won’t eventually happen, said Trent Miracle, a plaintiffs attorney with Simmons Hanly Conroy law firm in East Alton, Ill.
“Their public face has to be, ‘We will not settle these cases,’” said Mr. Miracle, whose firm has filed more than 20 Vioxx cases and is developing more than 100. “I think they need to get pounded in the nose a couple more times.”
Lawyers, drugs and money
Vioxx users in Northeastern Pennsylvania who have not filed a case or even seen an attorney should act soon, experts say.
In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations says all Vioxx cases will have to be filed within two years.
The question is, when does the clock start ticking?
Normally, it would start at the date of harm, said Mr. Aikens, the Kingston attorney preparing Vioxx cases. But a lawyer could argue the two-year limit does not.