Vioxx suits flood final days to file

Published September 30, 2006

RENTON, N.J. - A surge of lawsuits has swamped courthouses just ahead of the two-year anniversary of drugmaker Merck & Co. pulling its blockbuster painkiller Vioxx from the market.

Today is the deadline for many users to sue the drugmaker over heart attacks, strokes or other harm they blame on Vioxx. Patients in 22 states, many heavily populated ones, can no longer sue Merck because they have a limit of two years on initiating personal injury lawsuits; four other states have one-year limits.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., is holding its own defending Vioxx in the courtroom, racking up its fifth win this week. Most experts say Merck's fight-every-case strategy is discouraging an event bigger flood of lawsuits, although each trial is costing millions.

So far, well over 21,700 suits, many with multiple plaintiffs, have been filed, up sharply from the 14,200 Merck reported as of June 30. Merck also has at least 5,800 agreements waiving the statute of limitations for other Vioxx users.

The company faces at least 190 potential class action suits by Vioxx users and Merck shareholders. Merck is challenging the one class action already approved, for health insurers and unions seeking to be reimbursed for Vioxx they bought for health plan members - a case that could cost Merck $15-billion if it loses.

Merck, the No. 7 drugmaker in worldwide sales, won't discuss its Vioxx-related legal costs, but had reserved $970-million for those costs and spent $285-million of that as of December.