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Vioxx Users Pursue Legal Action Over Painkiller

Madera woman, 37, among those who suffered strokes

Nov 29, 2004 | The Fresno Bee Laura Darrell needed relief from back pain so she could concentrate on her nursing studies.

A doctor prescribed the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx in 2001, and it eased the pain from her degenerative bone disease. But the 37-year-old Madera mother says the painkiller caused her to have a series of small strokes at the end of 2002, forcing her to drop out of nursing school and lose a part-time office job.

Darrell wants the drug manufacturer to pay for her injuries, lost wages and potential lost income. "I'm not the same person as I was 2 1/2 years ago," she says.

She is one of thousands of people nationwide who have contacted lawyers since drug maker Merck & Co. announced Sept. 30 that it was recalling Vioxx.

Vioxx could be become a bigger mass tort case than fen-phen, the weight-loss drug combination that was pulled from the market in 1997 after heart valve problems were discovered. And other mega drug cases could be on Vioxx's heels.

Safety questions raised this month about five other prescriptions drugs Meridia, Crestor, Accutane, Bextra and Serevent open the door for litigation.

With about 20 million Americans prescribed Vioxx since it was approved for sale in 1999, there is no shortage of potential claimants.

"We're getting probably between 75 and 100 calls a day from people," says Stuart Talley, a senior associate at Kershaw, Cutter, Ratinoff and York, a Sacramento law firm specializing in pharmaceutical and medical device cases.

Vioxx is a COX-2 inhibitor, a class of drugs that reduce pain and inflammation without causing stomach upset and ulcers known to be side effects of aspirin and other painkillers.

Merck pulled the drug after a study showed people who used Vioxx for more than 18 months had nearly double the risk of having serious heart problems and strokes than people taking a placebo. Vioxx was used primarily to treat osteoarthritis and acute pain.

Merck has said it was vigilant in monitoring and disclosing problems and acted responsibly and appropriately in removing the drug.

Lawsuits against Merck are progressing through the legal system. Two big cases one in New Jersey and another in Los Angeles could come to trial as early as 2005, Talley says.

Tony Plohoros, a Merck spokesman, says the drug maker is aware of about 375 Vioxx cases having been filed.

Merck has a little more than $630 million in product liability insurance available to cover Vioxx claims brought against the company, Plohoros says.

Plohoros would not speculate as to whether the insurance will be adequate.

If Vioxx cases follow the path of fen-phen, the claims could be in the billions. Billions of dollars have been set aside by Wyeth to cover payouts, verdicts, settlements and legal fees. Wyeth, formerly American Home Products, made Pondimin the fenfluarmine half of fen-phen and the diet drug Redux.

Plohoros says, "We believe we have strong, meritorious defenses against any Vioxx suits that might be brought against us, and we are prepared to defend those cases vigorously."

Each case will be looked at individually, Plohoros says.

"There are many risk factors in a cardiovascular event obesity, smoking, heredity, other lifestyle indications."

Talley says his firm will be screening Vioxx claims very carefully to take only the best cases.

"We want young, healthy people who took Vioxx for a while and had a heart attack, and it can't be explained, except for the Vioxx," he says.

But Talley says anyone with heart, clotting or circulation problems when taking Vioxx should seek legal counsel.

She took Vioxx for 20 months, beginning in 2001. It was during her second year as a nursing student at Fresno City College, and she was taking over-the-counter medications for back pain. But the drugs were not working, and a doctor prescribed Vioxx.

The back pain stopped, but within a few months of taking Vioxx, Darrell says, she began having severe headaches. Doctors prescribed medication for migraines. But by November 2002, the headaches had become debilitating, and she dropped out of nursing school.

In December 2002, an MRI showed damage to a part of her brain. She says she was told she'd had a series of "mini strokes."

She stopped taking Vioxx in January or February 2003. "As soon as I stopped taking it, the incidence of headaches went down," she says.

But the strokes had altered her vision. "For awhile, looking at anybody was like looking through a broken mirror," she says. She has nerve damage to her arms, and her hands tremble. In February, she lost her part-time job with Madera County because she had missed too many days of work.

Her family is drained financially and emotionally, she says. "There's a lot of loss."

"Many people think it's going to be as big, if not bigger than fen-phen."

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