Merck & Co. said Friday it will pay $4.85 billion to end thousands of lawsuits over its painkiller Vioxx in what is believed to be the largest drug settlement ever.

Merck officials estimated the deal would end 45,000 to 50,000 personal injury lawsuits involving U.S. Vioxx users who suffered a heart attack or ischemic stroke the type in which blood flow to the brain is blocked.

“Without this settlement, the litigation might very well stretch on for years,” Merck executive vice present Kenneth Frazier said.

Andy Birchfield, a partner with Montgomery law firm Beasley Allen was the only Alabama attorney to serve on a negotiating committee appointed by judges in the cases.

Negotiating teams, met more than 50 times in eight states and spoke hundreds of times by telephone over many months to hammer out the deal, according to attorneys. Beasley Allen handled about 12 percent of the cases filed in the country.

“It’s a very good settlement,” said lawyer Jere Beasley, noting that Birchfield was one of the six plaintiff attorney who helped negotiate the settlement. “He was a leader in the negotiations.”

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market Sept. 30, 2004, after its researchers determined the blockbuster arthritis treatment, doubled risk of heart attack and stroke. At the time, Vioxx was pulling in $2.5 billion a year.

To qualify for a settlement plaintiffs must have filed claims by Thursday and meet several criteria, including medical proof that they suffered a heart attack or stroke, that they received at least 30 Vioxx pills and that they were ingested within two weeks before injury.

That is a big concession by Merck, which has long claimed that Vioxx caused harm only after 18 months of use. Those claims were dismissed by independent scientists and plaintiffs lawyers. Merck stressed that the agreement is not a class action settlement and that it is not admitting fault.

On Friday they said several factors made this “the right time” for the deal, including the expiration of the statute of limitations in 42 states.

The Beasley firm the settlement program “will ensure that those who suffered injuries as a result of Vioxx are compensated fairly and efficiently.”

After losing its first case in a $253 million verdict that was later sharply reduced, Merck has won a string of civil cases. It has won 10 of 15 court verdicts to date. One of the lawsuits that Merck took to court was a claim by a Jefferson County resident Gary Albright that Vioxx led to his non-fatal heart attack in 2001. The Circuit Court jury ruled in Merck’s favor in December 2006, agreeing with the contention of Merck’s lawyers that other health issues led to Albright’s heart attack.

The deal becomes binding only if 85 percent of the plaintiffs in key categories agree to the deal: all pending heart attack and ischemic stroke cases, all cases involving deaths and all cases alleging more than 12 months of Vioxx use.

Payments would vary, depending on severity of injuries, length of time that Vioxx was used and each person’s risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Payments could start as early as August.

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