NEW YORK Jan 16 Merck & Co Inc (MRK.N) expressed confidence it will reach the goals necessary to set a $4.85 billion Vioxx settlement in motion, as thousands of potential participants registered to become eligible by Tuesday's midnight deadline.
While the final tally was not yet available, Merck said on Wednesday that law firms representing more than 55,000 plaintiffs had registered their claims. Administrators were in the process of verifying the claims and dividing them into Vioxx users who suffered heart attacks and those who suffered strokes after taking the pain medicine.
Only those who registered by the deadline will then have the option to take part in the settlement. Merck needs 85 percent of registered plaintiffs to sign on to the settlement in each category or the deal falls apart. It could be several months before it is known if that goal has been achieved.
"We expect to meet and exceed the 85 percent in both categories. We just don't know when that will occur," said Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Merck's legal team.
He said tallying up the registrants was merely building the foundation for the rest of the settlement process.
Attorneys for Merck and plaintiffs will be in federal court in New Orleans on Friday to give a status report on the registration and settlement process to U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon, who had overseen all federal Vioxx trials.
They may also discuss a controversial aspect of the pact under which attorneys must recommend the deal to 100 percent of their Vioxx clients or withdraw from representing them.
Several lawyers have filed court papers seeking to alter that part of the agreement. Merck has insisted that the 100 percent rule remain intact, saying any changes would be a deal breaker.
The settlement terms call for $4 billion to be divided among the heart attack victims who opt in, with $850 million to be set aside for those who suffered strokes. Once 85 percent of qualified registrants declare they are opting into the settlement, Merck said it will write the check to fund it.
Merck pulled the popular pain and arthritis medicine from the market in October 2004 after a study showed it doubled heart attack and stroke risks in long-term users.
The drugmaker was facing about 26,600 lawsuits, which included some 47,000 plaintiff groups, from people who claimed to have been harmed by Vioxx, which was used by some 20 million Americans and had been a $2.5 billion a year drug.
Prior to announcing the settlement deal in November, Merck had pursued a strategy of fighting each lawsuit on a case by case basis. It prevailed in the majority of Vioxx trials and had yet to pay any damages in cases it lost while a lengthy appeals process ran its course.
The strategy appeared to give Merck the leverage it needed to gain a favorable settlement.
Analysts have called the near $5 billion settlement a major victory for Merck after many initially forecast Vioxx litigation would cost in excess of $20 billion before Merck could put the legal mess behind it. (Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Andre Grenon)