says painkiller that doubles risk of heart attack is ‘not fit to be
popular painkiller Vioxx doubled the risk of a heart attack and was not
fit to be on the market, a court ruled yesterday. In the world's first successful
class action against the makers of the drug, judges found the subsidiary
of the US pharmaceutical giant Merck had failed in its duty of care by not
warning doctors about health risks.
case raises awkward questions about why hundreds of British victims remain
without compensation six years after health problems associated with Vioxx
were uncovered. Yesterday's ruling in the Australian court follows a £2bn
settlement in America over claims brought by 44,000 claimants who blamed
the drug for cardiovascular problems.
Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who has been campaigning for the British victims,
said: "This is a very important and significant development. We have
been trying to convince the company that it is ethically right and in their
self-interests to do the decent thing and secure a settlement so British
victims get a deal [similar to that] given to US victims." But
he said the company continued to deny liability. Mr Lamb also accused the
UK government of failing to negotiate a settlement. "Ministers made
promising noises then after a meeting between the Government and the company
they weakened their position. I believe that the ministers came under pressure
from the company and their own civil servants to shut up."
ruling by the Federal Court in Melbourne is a major breakthrough for hundreds
of Australians. The court ordered the company to pay £172,300 to Graeme
Peterson, 59, who has been unable to work since a heart attack in 2003.
At least 600 other Australians will now lodge compensation claims against
Merck Sharpe and Dohme, which faces a bill of up to $300m, according to
Peter Gordon, Mr Peterson's lawyer, whose law firm, Slater & Gordon,
took on Mr Peterson's case for no fee.
more serious for Merck are the global implications: Vioxx was taken by more
than 80 million people worldwide before it was recalled in 2004, and lawyers
in several countries were awaiting the outcome of the Australian litigation.
Mr Gordon said: "This ruling opens up an enormous liability in the
UK and elsewhere. It's of enormous importance to potential victims in the
UK. As long as people are able to demonstrate that had they known the full
extent of the risks of taking Vioxx, they would have taken another painkiller,
they should succeed in negligence cases."
was hailed as a wonder drug for arthritis patients because, unlike traditional
anti-inflammatories, it did not cause stomach problems. Merck mounted the
biggest and most expensive recall in pharmaceutical history after a clinical
study showed it increased heart attacks and strokes.
Peterson, an occupational health and safety consultant, took Vioxx for more
than four years. Yesterday, outside court, he produced a capsule, which
he said he had kept as a reminder of a drug that had almost killed him.
He said that while he welcomed the judgment, he would continue fighting
for other victims. "There are people dying," he said. "I
am one of the lucky ones. Sure it has affected my life, but I've still got
my life. How many other people out there haven't?"
48-day trial heard colourful evidence about the lengths to which Merck went
to promote Vioxx in Australia before it was launched in 2000. Scores of
doctors were wined and dined by sales representatives at the country's most
expensive restaurants, entertaining them at Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the
also drew up a "hit list" of doctors and academics who needed
to be "neutralised" or "discredited", according to company
emails, because they had criticised the drug. It paid nurses to rifle patient
records for potential candidates for Vioxx, and it persuaded the world's
largest medical publisher, Elsevier, to produce several issues of what appeared
to be an independent scientific journal, without disclosing that it was
funded by Merck. The company, which plans to appeal against yesterday's
ruling, settled with thousands of US litigants in 2007, at a cost of nearly
US$5bn. It made no admission of guilt, and has indicated it will fight legal
action everywhere else.
Britain, a legal aid application by potential litigants has been turned
down, reportedly after Merck lobbied government ministers, including the
former health minister, Ivan Lewis, who had promised in parliament to assist
Federal Court judge, Christopher Jessup, said Vioxx had "about doubled
the risk of heart attack" and "was not reasonably fit for the
purpose of being used for the relief of arthritic pain". He said the
Australian subsidiary had failed in its duty of care in not warning Mr Peterson's
GP about the risks, and in the emphasis its sales representatives had placed
on Vioxx's safety. But the judge ruled that Merck had not been negligent
in development, scientific study and sale of the drug.
In a statement, Merck said it believed the evidence showed it had acted
responsibly "right up through the decision to voluntarily withdraw
the medicine in September 2004".
British case never got off the ground because the solicitors said they could
not secure legal aid. Mr Lamb said: "The legal system in this country
acts in a pernicious way and stops claims being aired in court. The company
should now make a global settlement to bring an end to this very sorry saga."
of Health spokesperson said: "While the Government sympathises with
those UK patients who have been adversely affected by Vioxx, there is no
sanction the Government could impose on the company in the UK to force them
to deliver a compensation deal."
study: 'I think Vioxx certainly contributed to my wife's death'
20 January this year Raymond Eaton lost his wife to complications arising
from a severe heart condition. He buried her a week later at St Mary's Church
in Stody. Mr Eaton is convinced that Vioxx, the now-banned drug prescribed
to alleviate arthritic pain, was to blame for her condition and premature
death at the age of 74.
Mrs Eaton had suffered for more than 40 years from a debilitating form of
rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually confined her to a wheelchair. When
the much-hyped "blockbuster" drug Vioxx was approved she seemed
a perfect candidate and was swiftly prescribed it through the local NHS
in North Norfolk. But after four years on the drug, which was effective
in relieving her pain, she suffered a coronary, now known to be one of the
drug's serious side-effects. She survived the attack, but her health never
recovered. "I think Vioxx certainly contributed to my wife's eventual
death," Mr Eaton said. "During the 40 years my wife had rheumatoid
arthritis, she had never ever had a problem with her heart or high blood
Eaton had spoken out against the way people in the UK had been unfairly
treated by Vioxx's manufacturers, the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co.
"She didn't want anything for herself, but if it could help other people
she said she would support it. It got to the point when it was completely
draining her and her health," Mr Eaton said. "My wife was a wonderful
person, and I miss her to bits."
loss of his wife has galvanised Mr Eaton to pursue the case through the
Cardiff-based solicitors Hugh James, which also represents more than 200
other former Vioxx users. However, he is aware that the current system is
skewed in favour of corporations and the rich; he is not a very wealthy
man and can't afford to lose what would be an expensive case.
Marks and Robert Verkaik