TRENTON, N.J. - With tens of thousands of Vioxx claimants tentatively signed on to a $4.85 billion settlement and more claims pouring in just under the wire yesterday, their lawyers and drug maker Merck & Co. predicted the deal will proceed.
As a first step to eventually getting a piece of the settlement, people claiming the withdrawn painkiller harmed them had until midnight to register, submitting details of their case but not yet committing to participate.
Merck and plaintiffs' lawyers proposed the deal in an effort to end the bulk of about 61,100 Vioxx cases. Those include about 47,000 plaintiffs with suits filed before the deal was made public on Nov. 9, and another 14,100 people who had agreements with Merck suspending the statute of limitations for them to sue.
As of late Monday night, nearly 45,000 claimants had registered, said New Orleans attorney Russ Herman, the chairman of the plaintiffs attorneys committee that hammered out the deal. He said so many more people had registered since then that updated numbers were not yet available.
"I think the figure will hit somewhere around 50,000," Herman said.
For the deal to go forward, Merck is requiring participation of 85 percent of plaintiffs in several categories: people who took Vioxx for more than 12 months, and those who suffered a heart attack, a stroke, or died. Other claims are excluded from the settlement.
"I think we're really going to be right in the ballpark, and I'm not concerned about" meeting the 85 percent threshold, Herman said. "The response has been, to me, extraordinary," given that the past few weeks have included major holidays, football bowl games, and other distractions.
He said close to 650 law firms, an estimated 90 percent of those handling Vioxx litigation, could sign on by the deadline.
Kent Jarrell, a Vioxx spokesman for Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, predicted the deal will go forward. He said the claims of all those registering must be verified, so the 85 percent levels can't be determined until it is clear how many claimants are eligible.
"We're sifting through what's coming in," he said. "We want the foundation for the settlement process to be solid."
Jarrell could not say how long it would take to complete verification, which includes checking plaintiffs' medical records and receipts showing their use of Vioxx.
After they've registered, claimants must commit by enrolling in the settlement program by March 1, or Feb. 29 if they want to get an interim payment before final payments begin in summer 2009; interim payments could start in August 2008. Once a claimant enrolls, the claimant's lawsuit against the drug maker ends.
Under the deal, $4 billion of the settlement will go to people who had heart attacks and the remainder to those who suffered strokes.
Merck pulled Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30, 2004 amid evidence the blockbuster drug doubled risk of heart attack and stroke.