The first court case to be heard against the makers of the arthritis painkiller Vioxx will open in Clay County next month, and Montgomery trial lawyer Jere Beasley said his firm will have several hundred more after that. 

Beasley’s firm is representing Cheryl Rogers, the widow of Howard Rogers, a dispatcher for the Anniston Rescue Squad who was in his early 40s at the time of his death. He “took Vioxx for a short period of time and had a massive heart attack and died,” Beasley said.

“There’s no doubt about it” that Vioxx caused his death, Beasley said. “In fact, we did an autopsy in which Vioxx and Merck had people there.”

James Fitzpatrick of the Hughes, Hubbard and Reed law firm in New York City, which is defending Merck Pharmaceuticals against the wrongful death case, denies the allegations.

“We’ll present the scientific evidence concerning Vioxx, and there will be evidence surrounding Mr. Rogers’ death, and that, taken as a whole, will show that Vioxx did not play a role in Mr. Rogers’ death,” Fitzpatrick said.

Beasley also contends that Merck had more than one study that concluded Vioxx posed dangers of causing heart attacks and strokes.

“They knew back in 1996, 1997 the risk of heart attack and stroke was great, and they withheld those studies,” he said. Among the findings were that “African Americans using the prescription painkiller were 17 times more likely to have heart attacks and strokes than a Caucasian person,” Beasley said.

“We’ve got documents where they told their employees who called on the doctors, told them how to mislead doctors, how to lie to doctors,” he said. “It’s in writing.”

Fitzpatrick said he is unaware of any such documents. He defended Merck’s handling of scientific studies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s review of them as highly responsible.

“Certainly Vioxx’s safety was debated,” he said.

“The data were extensive that the FDA was reviewing, including 10,000 patients prior to approval and thousands more after the drug was approved,” Fitzpatrick said.

“During that time, Merck disclosed the information that was gained from those studies to the FDA” and to the medical community “both before the drug was approved by the FDA and during the time it was on the market,” Fitzpatrick said.

When Merck learned results of clinical studies in 2004 showed a “minor elevation” of risk in some patients, “it acted very promptly” in voluntarily withdrawing Vioxx from the market, he said.

As his firm prepares for the upcoming case, scheduled to begin May 23, Beasley said he expects legal fees to be extensive for the several hundred cases he and others in his firm will litigate.

“I don’t know how many millions, but it will be in the millions before it’s all over,” he said.

Merck has set aside $685 million for experts and lawyers’ fees to defend against the thousands of cases filed against it, Beasley said.

Because so many federal cases have been filed against Merck, they have been consolidated for pretrial hearings that could last up to two years in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans.

Under what is known as multi-district litigation, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon will rule on preliminary matters and appoint a liaison lawyer for each side. He also will appoint two lawyers as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, with a committee of up to 14 lawyers on the plaintiffs’ side, Beasley said.

“We’ll have a lead role, I suspect, in that litigation,” he said. “We were probably the first law firm in the country to start lawsuits against them,” in 2001.

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