Readington-based Merck & Co., the third-largest U.S. drugmaker, said today it has set aside $810 million to cover costs stemming from lawsuits by customers claiming injuries from using the company's Vioxx painkiller. 

Merck added $210 million to increase the reserve to $810 million as of June 30, the company said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The reserve represents the best estimate of costs to be incurred through 2008, Merck said in the filing.

Merck faces 26,950 lawsuits in the U.S. over Vioxx, which was withdrawn in September 2004 after a study found long-term users had a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. The company has spent $258 million so far this year defending the drug in suits worldwide. Last year's costs totaled $500 million, according to spokesman Kent Jarrell.

"You don't have to spend that much money if you're innocent,'' said Mark Lanier, a Houston plaintiff's attorney who won the largest Vioxx verdict against Merck.

Of suits filed in the U.S., 8,575 are slated for trial in federal court in New Orleans, and another 16,400 cases are pending in a New Jersey state court. The company has also been sued in Europe, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel and Turkey.

So far Merck has refused to pursue a global settlement and hasn't established a reserve for potential damages.

"All the statements that Merck is softening, I believe, are bogus rumors,'' Lanier said of a potential settlement.

Jarrell said there has been no change in the company's litigation strategy. Merck has won nine cases that have come to trial over the drug since May 2005 and lost six.

About 10 cases are scheduled for trial before the end of the year.

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