$365m Vioxx award buoys lawyer for NZ patients

By Martin Johnston

A $365 million award against a drug company over the discredited painkiller Vioxx is encouraging for New Zealanders planning to sue the company, a lawyer says.

Damian Scattini said yesterday that his Australian law firm was acting for about 170 people, including more than 20 from New Zealand, who intended to take legal action against Merck & Co, the maker of Vioxx.

They are people who took the drug before its worldwide withdrawal last September, or are relatives of those who took it and have since died.

A Texas jury last week ordered Merck to pay US$253.5 million ($365 million) to the widow of a man who was taking Vioxx and died from heart problems, although the amount will be reduced by laws limiting punitive damages.

It was the first lawsuit to reach trial after the drug's withdrawal, although 4200 other suits have been filed in the United States and thousands more from other countries are being prepared.

The drug, introduced in 1999 and part of the Cox-2 inhibitor class of painkillers, was taken by hundreds of thousands of people, including about 15,000 in New Zealand.

Mr Scattini expected the New Zealanders' and Australians' claims would be filed in a US court within two months. He said the Texas decision was encouraging, despite Merck's decision to appeal against it.

"It does mean the first significant blow was landed by the good guys. It does mean a jury of ordinary citizens has looked at the behaviour of Merck and found it wanting."

But Merck says it acted responsibly and in the best interests of patients, researching the drug with almost 10,000 patients in pre-approval trials, monitoring it when on the market and then withdrawing it.

Material presented in the Texas trial indicated that some Merck scientists had concerns about the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx up to seven years earlier.

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