Merck Agrees to Settle Vioxx Suits for $4.85 Billion

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Three years after withdrawing its pain medication Vioxx from the market, Merck has agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle 27,000 lawsuits by people who claim they or their family members suffered injury or died after taking the drug, according to two lawyers with direct knowledge of the matter.

The settlement, one of the largest ever in civil litigation, comes after nearly 20 Vioxx civil trials over the last two years from New Jersey to California. After losing a $253 million verdict in the first case, Merck has won most of the rest of the cases that reached juries, giving plaintiffs little choice but to settle.

The settlement will help put Vioxx behind Merck, as well as sharply reduce its Vioxx-related legal defense fees, which are now running at more than $600 million annually.

Judges in Louisiana, New Jersey and California, who oversee nearly all the lawsuits, had pressed for a deal before a new wave of trials was scheduled to begin in January.

The agreement could still collapse, though lawyers with knowledge of the deal said that was unlikely. The deal becomes binding only if 85 percent of all plaintiffs agree to drop their cases and take the deal.

Plaintiffs will receive different settlement payments depending on the severity of their injuries and the length of time they took Vioxx.

“We’ve been asked by the judge to talk to the plaintiffs and we are talking to them,” Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Merck, said at 12:30 Friday morning. “Right now, there is no finalized agreement.”

Two lawyers with knowledge of the deal, however, confirmed it independently.

Based on the fact that the 27,000 suits cover about 47,000 sets of plaintiffs, the average plaintiff will receive just over $100,000 before legal fees and expenses, which usually swallow between 30 and 50 percent of payments to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs who do not want to accept the settlement can pursue their own claims, but with so many of the top trial lawyers in the United States agreeing to the deal, they may have difficulty doing so.

After several weeks of negotiations, Merck reached the settlement with lawyers who are on the steering committee that represents attorneys for the plaintiffs who have sued Merck in federal court. Those lawyers, and a handful of others, represent most of the 47,000 different groups of plaintiffs.

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