Merck Denies Plans of Global Vioxx Settlement

On the eve of a second court battle over its arthritis drug Vioxx, Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK) said on Friday it does not plan to enter into any global settlement of the thousands of Vioxx lawsuits (search) it faces and is focused on "defending these cases one at a time."

"We are in this for the long haul," Merck General Counsel Kenneth Frazier said in a telephone briefing with reporters. "We have both the resources and the resolve to address these cases over many years."

Merck previously had signaled that it might consider settling some lawsuits alleging harm from Vioxx, which was pulled from the market last year after it was shown to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in some patients.

A spokesman for the company's legal team said last month that "for a relatively small set of cases that involve patients who used Vioxx for over 18 months, we will take a close look."

Frazier, in his comments on Friday, did not speak of possible settlements of some cases. He said the company had no intention "to enter into any kind of global settlement" that could resolve much of the Vioxx litigation in one swoop.

"We have not changed our strategy. We have committed to defending these cases one at a time, and that's how we intend to proceed," he said.

Merck, unsurprisingly, is taking a tough stance ahead of the next Vioxx trial, set to begin on Monday in Atlantic City, N.J., said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who has tracked the litigation.

The drug maker could be contemplating some settlements down the road but likely wants to await the outcome of the upcoming New Jersey trial and other trials set to begin later this year, he said.

"Until you see a pattern, and one case can't be a pattern, it seems like Merck may want to fight these cases one at a time," he said. Also, "I think they need, for all kinds of reasons for public consumption, to be going forward and saying they are prepared to litigate vigorously."

The Atlantic City trial will be fought in Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck's home state. The plaintiff is a 60-year-old postal carrier and Vietnam War veteran who blames Vioxx for his 2001 heart attack.

In his remarks to reporters, Frazier also reiterated prior company comments that the company believes "we have strong grounds for appeal" in the recently concluded first Vioxx trial in Texas. The company has argued that jurors were allowed to hear testimony that was not scientifically sound.

A Texas state jury awarded $253 million to the widow of a man who died of heart arrhythmia after taking Vioxx for no more than eight months. However, that damages award is expected to be sharply reduced.

Frazier also said that Merck is in talks with regulators around the world about bringing the arthritis drug back to the market, but no decisions had been made.

The first federal trial in the Vioxx litigation had been set for November 28 in Louisiana. The judge overseeing the case is now working out of Houston because of Hurricane Katrina (search).

Frazier said that the parties involved in the case are "trying to work out an acceptable location" for the federal trial, but the November 28 opening date should stand.