Paul Crowell says he hates “sue-happy” people.
But after a blood clot and a heart attack put Crowell in a 10-day coma and crippled his left leg, he believed he deserved some payback.
Crowell blames those problems on Vioxx, the now-infamous pain reliever that he used to treat a bad back, so the 49-year-old Rochester man is exploring his legal options.
“I feel like if I win something and get something out of it, fantastic,” he said. “It wasn’t a happy point in my life.”
Crowell is one of 96 people from Monroe County who have filed claims in state Supreme Court against the maker of Vioxx, Merck & Co., which stopped selling the drug last year after finding it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. The local cases are among 6,500 filed nationwide by people who say the drug caused ailments.
The first lawsuit against Vioxx, in Texas, resulted in a $253.4 million award to the widow of a man who died of a heart attack after he used the drug for eight months. That award will likely be cut significantly because of Texas’ caps on punitive damages.
However, a New Jersey jury sided with Merck earlier this month in rejecting an Idaho man’s claim that he deserved restitution for a heart attack he suffered after taking Vioxx for two months.
So what might happen with the lawsuits filed here?
Despite Merck’s promise to fight each case individually, many lawyers say the company will eventually have no choice but to settle, and will then devise criteria for whom it thinks deserves a settlement. The process will likely take years.
But because of Merck’s victory in New Jersey, many plaintiffs might get shut out of a settlement if they didn’t take the drug for long, weren’t taking it at the time of the heart attack or stroke, or had other health problems, said Peter Catalano, a personal injury lawyer in Rochester and Syracuse with Alexander & Catalano. “The New Jersey verdict has made all lawyers who represent Vioxx victims look more closely at their cases,” he said. “They’re not all automatically a slam-dunk.”
Legal experts expect thousands of suits to be filed, considering Vioxx, a popular drug for arthritis, back pain and other ills, was prescribed to 20 million Americans between 1999 and 2004. The case is comparable to the one faced by fen-phen, a diet drug pulled off the market in 1997 after concerns that it caused heart valve damage and lung disease. Fen-phen’s makers agreed to pay upward of $3 billion to claimants. Lawsuits against Merck were inevitable once it pulled Vioxx off the shelves in September 2004. The company decided to discontinue the product after a study it sponsored revealed that heart attacks and strokes doubled in Vioxx users compared with those taking a placebo.
Previous studies also had revealed the drug’s impact on cardiovascular health, which resulted in Merck putting a warning label on the package in 2002.
But the civil cases against Merck claim the company knew much more about the drug’s impact on the heart and blood vessels and did nothing to warn doctors or protect consumers.
The local people suing Merck are represented by the Buffalo-based Barnes Firm. Shortly after the recall, Barnes inundated the media with advertisements looking for clients who claimed to be injured by Vioxx.
Greece resident Robert Coene, 70, is part of the local lawsuits. He won’t divulge all the details of his case because of the pending suit, but he said he had a heart attack in 2004 after taking Vioxx for four years.
The plaintiffs are lumped into 16 different lawsuits, most filed in late October, which include Barnes lawyers’ arguments concerning Merck’s alleged wrongdoings. However, the lawsuits provide no details about the claimants’ injuries.
There is one plaintiff who is suing on behalf of someone who is deceased. Brian A. Goldstein, the Barnes lawyer who filed the suits, did not return calls seeking comment.
The Barnes Firm is the only law firm to file claims against Vioxx in state Supreme Court in Rochester. There are likely other local residents involved in cases elsewhere. Local lawyers are referring clients to lawyers outside the area who specialize in large medical lawsuits.
Paul Rheingold, a Manhattan-based lawyer, has received referrals from 13 law firms in the Rochester area concerning clients who want to sue over Vioxx. However, none of the cases has been strong enough for him to take, Rheingold said.
“We have screened 2,200 cases (from across the country) to come up with less than 100,” Rheingold said. A person would have “had to take (Vioxx) for three or four months, the heart attack has to be due to a blood clot, and they can’t have many risk factors.”
Had been off Vioxx
Crowell, a salesman for a company called Prepaid Legal Services, had been off Vioxx for at least a couple of years before he had his heart attack in April 2004. He also suffers from emphysema after years of smoking.
But he said he never had high blood pressure until he started taking Vioxx. Also, Crowell had his heart checked before the heart attack, and there were no signs of blockage, he said.
Doctors surmised that a blood clot went through his heart and lodged in his groin. As a result of the surgery to remove the clot, Crowell will likely always need a leg brace to stand and walk.
“If I don’t recover anything, I gave it a shot. I’m not going to pitch a fit,” said Crowell. “But on the other hand, because of what I went through, I’m interested in getting something. My leg is ruined for the rest of my life.”