Payouts for Vioxx
The New York Times reported on August 21 that while verdicts against Merck & Co. arising out of the heart attack risk of Vioxx have garnered a great deal of attention, in fact no single victim has ever been paid even one dollar. For example, the Texas widow who recovered a 250 million dollar punitive damage verdict against Merck in 2005 is still waiting for the appellate courts to rule on Merck's several claims of appeal. Her verdict--designed to punish a knowing purveyor of an unsafe product--was reduced to about 26 million dollars by operation of law, and Merck has vowed not to pay any Vioxx-related settlement or verdict. Her lawyer estimates that she will not receive compensation before the year 2010 at the earliest.
The pain-killer Vioxx was administered to approximately 20 million people in the U.S., and 105 million prescriptions for Vioxx were written in the five years prior to its withdrawal from the market. Experts estimate that about 100,000 Americans taking Vioxx suffered myocardial infarctions. Forty-five thousand people have filed lawsuits and the company has successfully prevented them from being considered in a class action format, arguing (probably accurately) that there is too much individual variation among victim-plaintiffs for them to be considered as a single class.
Of the 20 Vioxx suits that have reached a jury (about nine per year), Merck has won 7 of the last 9, despite scientific evidence that Merck's own Dr. Alise Reicin characterized as a "great concern" two years before the company took Vioxx off the market. Despite Reicin's 1997 e-mail concerns and a study that Merck's top scientist, Edward Scolnick said convirmed Vioxx's risks, Merck resisted FDA efforts to add clear warnings to the product. Merck's recent success at trial suggests that the company can persuade jurors that many of the heart attack claims are not significantly related to Vioxx consumption, and that the remaining legitimate, proveable claims will endure long delays before achieving justice. Merck has already spent a billion dollars on defending these claims and estimates that it will spend at least four billion dollars more.
Merck faces no product claims in Michigan. Michigan legislators have granted drug manufacturers complete immunity for all FDA-approved drugs, even if approval was based upon incomplete or false disclosure by the manufacturer. The FDA approval process in very heavily influenced by drug industry representatives and paid consultants who compose a voting majority of the approval committees.