A Montgomery law firm took the charge against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., winning a $4.85 billion settlement for thousands nationwide who took the arthritis painkiller Vioxx.

Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles filed the first lawsuit against Merck six years ago. Three years later, the drugmaker pulled Vioxx from the shelves after studies showed the drug caused heart attacks and strokes.

“As it turned out, the science proved we were right,” Jere L. Beasley, senior member of the firm, said Tuesday.

Legal fees are capped at 8 percent of the settlement.

An estimated 20 million Americans took Vioxx between 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration approved it, and 2004, when Merck removed it from the market. Of the 88,000 to 160,000 Vioxx users who had heart attacks, 40 percent died, according to epidemiologists.

“I take tremendous pride in helping to get this drug off the market,” said Andy D. Birchfield Jr., a Beasley Allen attorney.

The Montgomery lawyers took notice of Vioxx after a consumer health group objected to the FDA approval, Beasley said.

The FDA did little in response to the lawsuits and growing physician concern.

“If anything was clear from these cases, it was that there was no regulation,” Beasley said.

Though others sued, Beasley Allen remained the lead plaintiff firm right through to the resolution of the thousands of personal-injury lawsuits in a New Orleans courtroom Friday.

In all, Beasley Allen tried six Vioxx lawsuits at a cost of $6 million to the law firm. For the first trial in Houston, Merck assembled a team of 100 lawyers, Birchfield said. Beasley Allen had three, plus a Houston attorney.

Merck set aside almost $2 billion to defend the lawsuits.

“Their lawyers kept reminding us that they weren’t going to pay any damages,” Beasley said. “When we first realized we were David and they were Goliath, it was scary.”

Still, Beasley Allen won a $256 million jury verdict in Houston, later reduced by a judge to $26 million. Merck appealed every verdict.

Birchfield said Merck eventually evened the score in the trial court and pulled ahead with favorable verdicts beyond Texas.

By last week, when 11 months of negotiations culminated in around-the-clock bargaining to hammer out a final deal, Merck had won more than half of the jury verdicts. Still, Merck agreed to settle.

“This agreement is the product of our defense strategy in the United States during the past three years, and is consistent with our commitment to defend each claim individually through rigorous scientific scrutiny,” Bruce N. Kuhlik, Merck’s general counsel, said in a statement.

Vioxx victims will have to submit their medical records to a court-appointed administrator to determine their compensation.

 



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