Merck & Co., the third largest U.S. drugmaker, now faces 4,951 lawsuits over the painkiller Vioxx in state and federal courts, or 15 percent more than a month ago, lawyers said.
The number of Vioxx suits filed has increased by more than 650 since mid-July, Merck’s lawyers told U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon in New Orleans. Fallon is overseeing all federal litigation over the drug, which Merck pulled off the market after it was linked to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Juries may hear some of those cases next year. Fallon today set trial dates for Feb. 13, March 13 and April 3 and urged lawyers to group their Vioxx claims. That requires attorneys to separate users who had heart attacks from those who suffered strokes. Those groups will be further divided by long-term and short-term use.
“Select the categories and then I’m interested in trying a case in each category,” Fallon said at a hearing. Picking one in each group will give attorneys with similar cases an idea of the value of their claims and their chances of winning at trial.
The first federal Vioxx case is set to start Nov. 28 in New Orleans. A Texas jury last week ordered $253 million to the family of Robert Ernst, who died at 59 after taking Vioxx for eight months. M????aside $675 million to defend suits over drugs.
“We are pleased with these trial settings and the prospect of things going forward on a rapid basis,” an outside attorney for Merck at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, said. “By the last part of the second ??? we’ll know a lot more about the parameters of this litigation.”
Shares of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck fell 7 cents to $22.76 in New York Stock Composite trading at 3:40 p.m. They have fallen 38 percent since Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September, wiping out about $38 billion in market value