| NEW YORK
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
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)