On the eve of the second trial over its painkiller Vioxx, pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. reasserted Friday that it planned to aggressively fight the mounting lawsuits over the withdrawn drug, despite recently saying it might settle some suits.
Kenneth C. Frazier, Merck’s general counsel and senior vice president, also tried to reassure investors that liability over Vioxx, estimated by analysts at as much as $50 billion, wasn’t a threat to the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company.
“We are in this for the long haul. We have both the resources and the resolve to address these cases one by one over many years,” Frazier told reporters during a conference call.
Frazier seemed to backpedal slightly on statements he made last month that indicated the company might settle a small number of lawsuits with Vioxx users who had limited heart risk factors and took the drug for 18 months or more.
Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last September after research linked the popular arthritis drug to increased risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use, although some plaintiff attorneys and doctors say the risk began rising much sooner. Nearly 5,000 cases have been filed against Merck.
Frazier said lawyers who represented Merck in a trial that would start Monday in Atlantic City, N.J., would stick with the company strategy of presenting “sound, reliable evidence” to convince the jury that Vioxx did not cause plaintiff Frederick Humeston’s heart attack.
Frazier said Humeston, of Boise, Idaho, who survived a heart attack four years ago, only took Vioxx intermittently and had multiple cardiac risk factors, which Humeston’s lawyer disputes.
The Merck general counsel would not discuss possible shifts in strategy between this trial and the first one, in which a Texas jury awarded $253.4 million to the widow of a Wal-Mart produce manager who had taken Vioxx for several months. That amount will be reduced to about $26 million because of Texas’ caps on punitive damages, and Merck plans to appeal.