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Quebec court gives go-ahead for Vioxx suit

Class action against Merck & Co. will be first in North America

Nov 11, 2006 |

Quebec is North America's first jurisdiction to allow a consumer class-action lawsuit against Merck & Co. Inc. over its painkiller Vioxx.

On Thursday, Quebec Superiour Court Judge Andre Denis authorized a class-action lawsuit by Quebec residents who suffered "damages caused by the use of the medication" between October 1999 and September 2004.

The number of Quebecers eligible to join the class-action suit isn't clear.

Merck says the class action is open only to Vioxx users who've suffered proven physical injuries because of the drug an interpretation of the term "damages" that would severely limit the number of eligible plaintiffs.

But a lawyer for the plaintiffs argued Quebecers who have suffered monetary "damages" linked to the drug's comparatively high price should also be included an interpretation that would potentially allow thousands of former users to participate.

On Sept. 30, 2004, Merck withdrew Vioxx a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug related to ibuprofen after trial data showed the long-term use of the drug increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Vioxx was used to treat the symptoms of arthritis, painful menstrual cycles and other types of acute pain. Merck has set aside more than $1.2 billion U.S. for Vioxx lawsuits.

On Wednesday, Merck chief executive officer Richard Clark said it could be several years before the company considers settling thousands of Vioxx lawsuits.

A lawyer for plaintiffs in Quebec and Ontario, said there have been more than 20 requests for class-action lawsuits filed across Canada over Vioxx. This is the first Vioxx class-action lawsuit that has received legal clearance to proceed.

Citing statistics by IMS Health Inc., a plantiffs attoreny said Quebecers consumed a disproportionate amount of Vioxx; between 1999 and 2004, 6.3 million prescriptions were written for the drug in Quebec, compared with 15.6 million for all of Canada.

"Given the number of people in Quebec who took Vioxx, it's a significant development," said a palntiffs attorney of the London-Ont. based Siskinds LLP.

The petition for a class action was filed by two plaintiffs, retired teacher Gerald Sigouin and Roger Ste-Marie, a car insurance adjuster. Both men, the court decision said, allege that they suffered heart attacks after using Vioxx for more than three years.

They said Merck "failed in its obligation to adequately inform consumers of (Vioxx's) side effects," a court document shows.

"If the consumers were adequately informed of the inherent risks in taking Vioxx, they wouldn't have taken it, or would have stopped taking it long before."

In his decision, Denis wouldn't allow family members and spouses of Vioxx users to participate in the class action.

Andre Payeur, attorney for Merck Frosst Canada, said the decision was a good one for the company as it limited participants to those who could prove they had been physically harmed by the drug.

"We're talking about very few people," he said.

Payeur defined "damages" as physical harm, as "this is a personal injury claim."

But in a legal squabble that could result in future court delays, plaintiffs attorney  said he defined "damages" as being both physical and monetary.

The plantiffs attorney argued that Merck justified charging more for Vioxx because the company claimed it was safer than other anti-inflammatories on the market. Plaintiffs, he said, could join the class action to seek monetary damages.

"It is surprising to us that Merck is seeking to characterize this as a victory," he said.

It's now up to the plaintiffs to initiate lawsuit proceedings.

Denis's decision isn't the first Vioxx-related class action to proceed in the courts.

In New Jersey, plaintiffs composed of insurance companies were given court authorization for a class action against Merck over the drug. Merck is appealing that decision, Payeur said.

In Quebec, Merck is not permitted to appeal the court's decision.

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