A decision by Merck & Co. to pay $4.85 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits over its painkiller Vioxx bought accountability but little comfort for the Palm Coast woman who brought the first federal lawsuit against the company.

“It’s a relief,” said Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, whose husband, Richard “Dicky” Irvin Jr., died of a heart attack in 2001 after taking Vioxx for 23 days.

“But you can’t really say it’s closure, because somebody lost his life,” added Plunkett, who now lives in Palm Coast. “But where else do you go? You have to go on.”

Merck’s announcement on Nov. 9 is set up to resolve 85 percent of the lawsuits that have been filed over the drug, which at one time reportedly earned the company $2.5 billion a year.

Irvin, the 53-year-old manager of the Seafood Shoppe on Riberia Street in St. Augustine, helped unload the fish and shrimp brought in on boats that docked behind the business. He developed back problems toting boxes that weighed anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds.

“He had never had any problems before,” said Plunkett. “He was in great shape.”

Irvin had been a football star at Hastings High School and was posthumously inducted into the University of Richmond’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

A nose guard at Richmond from 1967-69, Irvin was first team All-Southern Conference in 1969 and helped the Spiders to conference championships his junior and senior seasons. The 1968 team beat Ohio University 49-42 in the Tangerine Bowl for a No. 18 national ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

Irvin had 16 tackles, six for losses, in a 17-10 win over Virginia Tech on Oct. 4, 1969. His play made him Sports Illustrated’s national defensive player of the week. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League in 1970.

“He was a go-getter,” Plunkett said. “He always wanted to do something for somebody.

“He organized a golf tournament for St. Augustine High School. When he died, he was organizing a golf tournament for Menendez High School.

“Always very family oriented. Always doing something for kids, for families.”

When Irvin developed back problems, he was prescribed a painkiller that made him sick, Plunkett said. He soon stopped it and got a second prescription. For Vioxx.

“He didn’t say anything about side effects,” Plunkett said. “He said it helped his back.”

Irvin had taken Vioxx for 23 days when his co-workers found him behind his desk, dead of a heart attack.

He left behind his wife of 32 years, one son and three daughters – Richie, Leslie, Ashley and Allesha.

His widow read an article in Newsweek magazine about three months later that described an association between Vioxx and heart attacks.

“It was like, ‘Bing!’ ” Plunkett said. “A light went on. I just knew.”

Plunkett called Jacksonville attorney Wayne Hogan, a childhood friend of her and her husband from St. Augustine.

He reviewed a copy of the autopsy report and called back a month later.

“He said, ‘I think you’ve got something,'” Plunkett recalled.

Hogan referred her to the Montgomery, Ala., law firm of Beasley Allen, one of the first in the country to take on Merck, the third-largest drug maker in the United States.

Plunkett’s case was the third one filed in the country and the first to go to trial in federal court.

A jury found against her in February 2006 after a mistrial was declared two months earlier.

“There was a time after the second trial that we thought it was all over,” said Plunkett. “But we were still going to appeal because we didn’t feel we were given a fair trial. For several reasons.”

The presiding federal judge, however, decided Plunkett deserved another trial after learning that one of Merck’s expert witnesses “misrepresented his qualifications to the court and to the jury,” Hogan said.

That trial was pending when Merck announced settlement on Thursday.

“This is a saga, not just of leadership, but of persistence on Evelyn’s part,” said Hogan. “This is a person who understood what happened to her husband, and she wasn’t going to quit.

“Because of her persistence, there’s a national settlement.”

If anything, Plunkett said, “Dicky” Irvin was more persistent than she is.

“I think that he has been my push throughout all of this,” she said. “When you know something’s right, you push and push.

“And this was the right thing to do.”

Vioxx was approved as a painkiller and arthritis treatment in 1999. It was taken off the market in 2004 after a study showed it could double the risk of heart attacks and strokes in some patients if taken for at least 18 months.

More than 20 million Americans had used Vioxx by that time, according to several reports.

The company, with headquarters in Whitehouse Station, N.J., faces more than 26,000 lawsuits over the drug, according to Bloomberg.com.

“This was not about the money,” Plunkett said. “Never was. This was about right and wrong.

“It was about being held accountable for the wrong. Vioxx was a bad drug, and they kept denying it.”

For more information, please visit The St. Augustine Record online.

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