Merck settles shareholder lawsuits tied to Vioxx

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Merck & Co has agreed to make corporate governance changes and create internal committees to address potential safety issues with its products under a proposed settlement of shareholders lawsuits related to its withdrawn Vioxx painkiller.

Merck also agreed to amend its code of conduct and pay as much as $12.2 million in legal fees as part of the settlement, which resolves all derivative litigation against Merck over Vioxx, according to the company. Such litigation allows shareholders to sue in the name of the company.

Many terms of the settlement, such as filling the position of chief medical officer and registering clinical trials with the government, have already been accomplished or are in the process of being completed, a Merck spokesman said.

“The company will adopt these measures, which supplement policies and procedures previously established by the company,” Merck spokesman Ron Rogers said, noting that the settlement does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing.

The Superior Court of New Jersey approved the derivative lawsuit settlement on a preliminary basis on Monday. A hearing to determine whether the settlement should win final approval has been scheduled for March 22 in New Jersey Superior Court in Atlantic City.

Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in 2004 after a clinical study showed it increased the rate of heart attack and stroke in long-term users of the medicine.

In 2007, the drugmaker agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle thousands of personal-injury lawsuits from former Vioxx users who claimed the drug caused their heart attacks or strokes.

Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf. Editing by Maureen Bavdek