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Lawyers Talk Over Vioxx Settlement

December 10, 2007
Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Dozens of plaintiff lawyers gathered here Monday for a briefing on a landmark $4.85 billion settlement with Merck & Co. that ends thousands of personal-injury lawsuits over its Vioxx painkiller.

Behind closed doors in a French Quarter hotel conference room, several lawyers who helped negotiate last month's settlement outlined terms of the deal to other attorneys for Vioxx users who suffered a heart attack or stroke after using the drug.

"This has to be the most complicated settlement that has ever been entered into," said Los Angeles-based attorney Thomas Girardi, who helped broker the deal with Merck and coordinated Monday's conference.

Jan. 15 is the registration deadline for plaintiffs who hope to qualify for shares of the settlement money, according to Girardi. Merck is expected to start making payments in August.

In the meantime, their lawyers must decide whether to advise all or none of their clients to participate in the settlement. The agreement bars attorneys with participating clients from representing others who opt out of the deal and continue with their lawsuits.

"It's the first time I've seen that (requirement) before," said Robert Partain, one of more than 70 lawyers who attended Monday's conference. "Merck is trying to ensure that the litigation ends."

Partain, whose firm is based in Los Angeles, said he hasn't yet decided how he will advise his roughly 1,300 clients. He described the settlement as a "mixed bag," but said many plaintiffs are eager to resolve their cases without risky, expensive trials.

"For that reason, we're pleased the cases are going to be settled," Partain said. Joseph Zonies, a Denver-based lawyer, is scheduled to lead a conference session Tuesday called "Stay Out or Opt In." Zonies, who recently switched firms and no longer represents former Vioxx users, said he expects few plaintiffs to opt out.

"There are positives for everyone," he said. "It's not perfect, but no settlement is." The conference, which ends Tuesday and is closed to the public, is one of more than a dozen such forums held in other parts of the country since the settlement was announced Nov. 9, Girardi said.

The deal is expected to end an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 state and federal lawsuits. However, at least 85 percent of the plaintiffs in several different categories must agree to the deal before it can be finalized.

To qualify, plaintiffs must have filed their claims before Nov. 8 and meet several other criteria regarding their medical histories and Vioxx use.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market Sept. 30, 2004, after its researchers determined the drug doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The first Vioxx trial ended with a $253 million verdict against Merck, but that award was later reduced. The company also has won 10 of the 15 court verdicts before last month's settlement.

Girardi said he has heard few, if any, dissenting voices among the hundreds of plaintiffs attorneys affected by the settlement.

"In all the cases we've looked at, I can't think of anybody I'd recommend opting out," he added.