Not much has changed at Merck since Vioxx was pulled off the market. The only difference for shareholders is that instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to promote Vioxx, the attorney's fees are now costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
As of December 31, 2004, Merck had established a reserve of $675 million solely for legal defense costs related to Vioxx, according to the company's 2005 annual report.
During 2005, the report said, Merck spent "$285 million in the aggregate in legal defense costs worldwide" related to Vioxx.
'This reserve is based on certain assumptions," Merck told shareholders, "and is the best estimate of the amount that the Company believes, at this time, it can reasonably estimate will be spent through 2007."
That said, the company has not set aside one dime for potential damage awards in Vioxx trials through 2007. Which means the only good news to report as far as Merck's legal strategy of a case by case defense of thousands of lawsuits in the years ahead, is that the company's legal team will keep raking in dough while Merck slowly goes under.
In addition to the thousands of personal injury and wrongful death claims, Merck also faces class actions, filed on behalf of prescription drug plans and insurance carriers seeking treble damages, that experts say could expose Merck to multi-billion dollar verdicts.
The plaintiffs in the class actions allege that Merck misrepresented the safety profile of Vioxx, ignoring clear and early warning signs of its risks in order to continue its sale, and that had they known the truth, they would not have included Vioxx as an approved drug or agreed to reimburse plan members for its high cost. They also contend that Vioxx was no more effective than over-the-counter painkillers already on the market.
In seeking reimbursement, these plaintiffs will not have to prove that Vioxx caused any injuries or deaths. All they will have to show is that Merck continued to push Vioxx after it knew about the drug's increased risks.
And on top of the class action monsters, there is the pesky little matter of lawsuits filed on behalf of the individual states that also have the potential to expose Merck to billion dollar damage awards. The state actions are similar to the class actions and seek repayment for money paid for Vioxx by state run health care programs like Medicaid.
The damages sought are huge. For instance, Texas Attorney General, Gregg Abbott, is seeking $168 million and says he can prove total damages in excess of $250 million over five years in payments for Vioxx.
According to Merck's 2005 annual report, "The Company has received a Civil Investigative Demand from a group of the Attorneys General of 31 states and the District of Columbia who are investigating whether the Company violated state consumer protection laws when marketing VIOXX. The Company is cooperating with the Attorneys General in responding to the Civil Investigative Demand."
The state of New York's Controller, Alan Hevesi, claims his state's retirement fund lost $171 million when Merck's stock value dropped and that teachers, policemen, and firefighters have lost $287 million all total from their retirement funds.
The NY suit alleges that Merck violated federal securities laws by failing to disclose information about the safety risks of Vioxx. "The New York State Common Retirement Fund is exactly the kind of sophisticated and knowledgeable financial institution that the Congress, in the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, intended to lead such class action suits," Mr Hevesi said in a press release.
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