The manufacturer of the arthritis pain drug Vioxx has been sued in U.S. District Court in Spokane in the first suit of its kind in the region.
An estimated two dozen similar lawsuits are being drafted against Merck & Co. on behalf of other plaintiffs who live in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, Spokane attorney Robert Crotty said Friday.
Throughout the United States, an estimated 700 suits have been filed so far on behalf of people who took Vioxx, approved for use in May 1999 by the Food and Drug Administration. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last fall.
The drug company is now asking a panel of federal judges in Florida to consolidate the various lawsuits, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.
In Spokane, Crotty and attorney Matthew Zuchetto filed their federal suit Thursday on behalf of William Schmidt, who lives in Spokane Valley and represents the estate of his late wife, Florence, who died in 2002.
“Florence Schmidt died because she took Merck’s prescription medication, Vioxx,” the suit alleges.
The 75-year-old Spokane Valley woman, suffering from arthritis, took the drug from November 2000 until Jan. 28, 2002, when she suffered a stroke.
“The stroke paralyzed the right side of Florence’s body and made it impossible (for her) to walk,” the suit says.
“The stroke also made it difficult to swallow and impossible to eat. She died two weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2002, from the debilitating effects of the stroke,” the suit says.
It seeks unspecified general and compensatory damages for “pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of capacity to enjoy life and loss of consortium.”
The Schmidt suit also seeks compensation for medical and funeral expenses and attorney fees associated with bringing the action.
It also seeks damages under the Washington Consumer Protection Act. That law allows for the trebling of any damage award.
“What happened here is egregious,” Crotty said Friday. “It should have never happened.”
Because personal injuries vary widely among patients who took Vioxx, Crotty said he doesn’t think the various lawsuits should be combined as a class action as the drug manufacturer is requesting.
Crotty, of the Lukins & Annis law firm, has been involved in other class actions and damage suits against drug manufacturers.
The firm represented 125,000 Washington residents who took the diet drug Fen-Phen and also handled another case brought on behalf of people who died or were injured after taking the cholesterol-lowering drug Baycol.
Before the FDA approved Vioxx for use in the United States in 1999, Merck knew the drug “was associated with serious health risks,” the Schmidt suit says.
As early as 1997, the drug manufacturer knew Vioxx could result in an increased likelihood of blood clots and heart attacks.
A year after the drug was approved for use, Merck received “reports of death and cardiovascular events” among study groups of patients using the drug. “Merck failed to disclose these serious health risks when it learned of them,” the suit alleges.
Instead of disclosing the risks, the drug company “launched a massive marketing campaign,” which included providing promotional material and free samples to physicians, it says.
Eight months before Florence Schmidt began taking Vioxx at her doctor’s recommendation, the drug company received a scientific study that showed patients who took 50-milligram doses were four to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack.
Patients taking that dosage also were 2.3 times more likely to suffer strokes, unstable angina and sudden unexplained death, the suit says, but Schmidt was not warned of those dangers.
By the end of 2000, Vioxx held 23 percent of the market, paired against Celebrex, a competing drug, and Merck earned approximately $1.5 billion in profits.
In 2000, Merck spent $161 million advertising Vioxx, exceeding the advertising budgets of Pepsi, Budweiser and Nike.
“Merck continued to aggressively advertise, market and defend the safety of Vioxx” until last Sept. 30 when the drug company “finally admitted that the drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke.” the suit says.
“The withdrawal came too late for Florence Schmidt, who took Vioxx without notice of the inherent risks to her health or the opportunity to switch from Vioxx to safer products for pain relief from her arthritic condition,” the suit says.
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