A Frederick County woman filed a lawsuit yesterday against the maker of Vioxx, claiming that the controversial anti-inflammatory drug caused her husband’s death three years ago.
The manufacturer of Vioxx, Merck & Co., says it has been sued in about 2,300 cases involving use of the drug. Most were filed since Sept. 30, when Merck withdrew Vioxx after growing evidence indicated it could cause heart attacks, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.
Food and Drug Administration safety officer Dr. David J. Graham has estimated that the drug, which is known as a Cox-2 inhibitor, may have caused as many as 55,000 heart attack deaths. The suit filed yesterday asks for $10 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages for the death of Richard Matthews. According to his wife, Lisa Matthews, he began taking Vioxx in May 2002 for sciatic nerve pain. Within a few days, Matthews, 42, died of a heart arrhythmia. He left behind three children and his wife.
“The last words he told me before he died were, ‘I took two Vioxx, the doctor said it was OK,’” said Lisa Matthews, who lives in Thurmont. “Those words will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
She says her husband, who was a supervisor at Home Depot, had no previous heart problems.
Because of the large number of Vioxx suits, many are being grouped to save time and court costs. In these cases, the discovery phase – the period in which lawyers go through relevant records and take depositions from key witnesses – will be held in a New Orleans federal court, presided over by District Judge Eldon E. Fallon.
The attorney for Lisa Matthews, David Albright Jr. of Bennett and Albright in Baltimore, said he expects the case to be tried here. He said he is looking at “numerous” other potential Vioxx claims.
Jere Beasley, a personal injury lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., said his firm could end up filing between 4,000 and 5,000 suits relating to Vioxx. None of the Vioxx cases around the country have gone to trial yet.
Beasley says that Merck knew that the drug was risky but continued to market it to doctors and the public.
Beasley said Merck was clearly in the wrong. “They lied to the FDA, they lied to the medical community, and they lied to the public,” he said. “They put profits over safety.”
Merck says it acted responsibly, continuing to study the drug after it was approved and withdrawing it when evidence showed increased heart risk. The company plans to defend itself in the cases and has put aside $675 million to cover litigation costs. It has not reserved any money to pay for judgments.
Jim Fitzpatrick, an outside counsel for Merck who is dealing with the Vioxx cases, said that it would be difficult for plaintiffs to show a connection between Vioxx and heart problems.
“They have to prove that Vioxx caused their injuries,” he said. “That’s a very difficult burden. Numerous other risk factors that are common are also known to cause heart attacks and other related injuries.”
Merck will take an aggressive stance, said Seton Hall University law professor Howard Erichson, an expert on complex litigation. “Merck knows that as soon as they start settling cases, a lot more cases will come out of the woodwork.”
Although most of the suits involve Vioxx, Albright and many other personal injury lawyers are also looking at cases involving Bextra and Celebrex. In April, Pfizer removed Bextra from the market at the request of the FDA, which was concerned about heart safety.
Some doctors are still prescribing Celebrex, the only remaining medicine of its type still on the market. They say that when it’s used at lower doses, for shorter periods, the drug remains safe.
“It’s important to realize that the absolute risk is extremely small,” said Dr. Roger Blumenthal, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I’m comfortable with using Celebrex.”