The once-popular painkiller Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attack and was unfit for consumption, an Australian court ruled Friday, awarding a man leading a class action suit against the drug's maker 287,000 Australian dollars ($259,000) in compensation.
Melbourne Federal Court Judge Christopher Jessup's decision opens the door for claims from 600 other litigants in a lawsuit against U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. over its since-recalled drug Vioxx. The painkiller was taken off the global market in 2004 after research showed it raised the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Graeme Peterson, 59, of Melbourne, sued Merck and its Australian subsidiary, Merck Sharpe & Dohme, arguing the painkiller caused him to have a heart attack in 2003, leaving him unable to work.
The judge found that Merck Sharpe & Dohme failed in its duty of care by not warning Peterson's doctor about the drug's potential cardiovascular risk, and by its sales representatives emphasizing the drug's safety.
"I have concluded that, across a population, the consumption of Vioxx about doubled the risk of heart attack," Jessup wrote in his opinion. "I have held that because Vioxx involved about a doubling of the risk of heart attack, it was not reasonably fit for the purpose of being used for the relief of arthritic pain."
But the judge rejected Peterson's claim that Merck knew or should have known that the drug increased the risk of cardiovascular disease long before it yanked Vioxx from the market in 2004. Jessup also rejected Peterson's argument that Merck had turned a blind eye to a 2000 clinical trial that showed potential cardiovascular risks were linked to use of the drug.
Merck has already agreed to pay a $4.85 billion settlement to resolve about 50,000 lawsuits in the U.S.
In a statement, Merck said it would appeal the portions of the judgment against Merck Sharpe & Dohme and noted the court dismissed all claims against the parent company, "specifically finding that Merck was not negligent in its development, scientific study and sale of Vioxx."
Peter Gordon, lead attorney for the Australian class action against Merck, said his firm has been contacted by about 3,000 people interested in joining the class action. Each claim will be evaluated individually, but Gordon said he believes the vast majority will succeed on the same basis Peterson's did.
"My estimate is that Merck will probably end up paying something between $200 (million) and $300 million to Australians who suffered heart attacks as a consequence of consuming Vioxx," Gordon told The Associated Press.
Merck said the evidence showed the company acted responsibly by carefully monitoring the drug and voluntarily taking it off the market.