| NEW ORLEANS
NEW ORLEANS The judge overseeing all the federal cases involving Merck & Co's withdrawn Vioxx pain drug does not foresee a wave of new lawsuits being filed, after the drugmaker announced a $4.85 billion settlement on Friday.
Merck said it would pay the money to settle claims that Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes in thousands of users. The announcement was a major strategy shift by the drugmaker, which had repeatedly vowed to fight each lawsuit on a case-by-case basis.
U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon said he believed safeguards built into the agreement would prevent new plaintiffs from coming forward in an attempt to claim some of the money.
"I don't see a deluge of new claims being filed," Fallon said, after a meeting with lawyers for the plaintiffs, the drugmaker and some of the judges, who have been overseeing the Vioxx case load.
Ed Blizzard, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys at the meeting in New Orleans, echoed Fallon's assessment. He believed 99 percent of the cases have been filed and doesn't anticipate a substantial number of new claims, Blizzard said.
Forty-two states have statues of limitations of three years or less and there have already been a number of court rulings stating that the statutory period for filing Vioxx personal injury claims has passed.
Merck withdrew the arthritis and pain medicine that had been used by more than 20 million people in the United States in September of 2004 after a study found it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients, who took it for at least 18 months. The company was hit with tens of thousands of personal injury lawsuits.
While the settlement agreement does not require court approval, Fallon and other judges are expected to remain part of the process. He scheduled a December 14 status conference.
The other judges who attended the meeting and had requested settlement discussions were New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, who is overseeing thousands of Vioxx cases in Merck's home state, and California Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney. Texas County Court Judge Randy Wilson was involved but unable to attend due to a schedule conflict.
Higbee, who has presided over several Vioxx trials, called the deal "a fair resolution."
"It's a good day for the system. It's a good day for Merck. It's a good day for the plaintiffs and it's a good day for me personally," she said.
Blizzard said individual payments will depend on the number of people who qualify for settlement.
In some cases, the attorney said he could see an award rising to $1 million or more, depending on the age of the plaintiff and his or her other health issues.
Merck was able to win several trials by convincing jurors that plaintiffs had all kinds of health problems that were more likely to have caused a heart attack than Vioxx.
To qualify for the settlement, claimants need medical proof they suffered a heart attack or stroke, documented receipt of at least 30 Vioxx pills and be able to show they took Vioxx within 14 days prior to the claimed injury.
In the settlement presentation it was noted that there were 29,000 cases involving heart attacks, 17,000 strokes, 8,500 other injuries and 6,300 listed as unknown.
(Writing by Bill Berkrot, Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)