Merck faces a fresh barrage of lawsuits over its Vioxx arthritis drug that together could cost it as much as $18 billion as hundreds of lawyers from across America will next week team up for a combined attack on the embattled drug manufacturer.
Many of the lawyers, who claim to have thousands of potential clients who became ill after taking Vioxx, are scheduled to meet at a secret location next Friday, with hundreds more joining them by telephone conference.
The meeting has been called to start proceedings for what is known as multi-district litigation (MDL) against Merck.
Under such a process a team of judges from across America gathers all the lawsuits, including class actions and individual complaints, under one umbrella before deciding if they should all be tried together in one place at the same time.
Merck last month withdrew Vioxx from sale because studies showed that taking it for 18 months or more could cause fatal heart attacks and strokes in otherwise healthy people.
William Federman, senior partner of Federman and Sherwood, one of the law firms leading the assault on Merck, said that if the MDL is authorised by the panel of judges, which could happen as early as January, the number of lawsuits against Merck will balloon.
“More than 27 million people took this drug. Hundreds have already signed up to my knowledge and there could be many more hundreds, or thousands to come,” Mr Federman said.
It has been estimated that as many as 700 lawsuits have already been filed in America, while Merck acknowledges some 300 legal claims related to Vioxx.
Analysts have predicted that the cost of the lawsuits to Merck could be as low as $1 billion or as high as $18 billion. Many opt for a figure in the middle of that range.
Merrill Lynch has said that the liability could be as high as $17.6 billion over the next ten years.
The case against Merck was boosted yesterday by an article in the Lancet, the British medical journal, that claimed the company knew about the dangers of Vioxx as long ago as 2000. Merck denied the accusation and said that it had always taken patient safety seriously.