In a surprise move, giant pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck is considering settling some of the Vioxx claims. The admission, reported in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, would pertain to individuals without risk factors for heart attack or stroke and who took Vioxx for more than eighteen months. The revelation appears counter to the company’s previous position of fighting each of the Vioxx lawsuits.

Although the new position was communicated by a Merck spokesperson, the company’s chief counsel has stated that Merck’s strategy of fighting every claim has not changed. Other legal experts believe the decision to settle at least some of the claims will actually be a cost-saving measure for Merck over the long-run.

The apparent decision to settle cases among individuals who used Vioxx for more than a year and a half, and who were absent cardiovascular risk factors, will involve an undetermined number of claims. Risk factors are conditions that have been found to be associated with increases in heart disease. Major risk factors include heredity, age, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and physical inactivity.

It is estimated that more than 20 million people took Vioxx in the United States alone, before the drug was pulled from the marketplace last September. Merck withdrew Vioxx after a company sponsored clinical trial found an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who took the drug for more than 18 months.

On August 19th, a Texas jury found Merck liable for the death of a 59-year old man who took Vioxx for eight months. The jury awarded his widow $253 million in damages although the award is likely to be capped to about $26 million under Texas law.

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