N.J. Judge Orders Merck to Pay $4 Million in Vioxx Case Legal Fees

Lawyers who helped a heart attack victim win a $13.5 million jury verdict in a Vioxx liability case should be paid about $4 million in legal fees by Merck & Co., a New Jersey judge has ruled.

Merck, which made the now-withdrawn painkiller, is appealing the verdict as well as the fees, said its lawyer, Ted Mayer. The company is battling nearly 25,000 lawsuits from people who said they were hurt by the drug.

The decision on fees was issued last Friday by state Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee, who presided over last year’s trial on the claims of John McDarby, now 78, and Thomas Cona, 61.

In the case of McDarby, the jury found that Merck failed to warn of the drug’s risks, concealed them from prescribing physicians and knowingly withheld data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

McDarby, a retired insurance agent from Park Ridge, survived his heart attack. The jury rejected a claim made by Cona, that Vioxx caused his heart attack, but gave him $45 (euro33.6) to cover prescription costs under his claim of consumer fraud.

Mayer, the Merck lawyer, said: “We believe that awarding lawyers several millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees is rather unreasonable, considering the claim at issue was never worth more than about $4,000. The amount is especially unreasonable from Mr. Cona’s lawyers because they lost the product liability claim that was the heart of their case.”

Whitehouse Station-based Merck pulled Vioxx off the market in September 2004 after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke when taken for longer than 18 months.

Higbee is overseeing some 16,550 lawsuits against New Jersey-based Merck. An additional 8,400 cases are pending in federal court in New Orleans.

Merck has vowed to fight each case. Higbee’s ruling said that Merck spent $500 million defending Vioxx cases in 2006 and has put aside at least $858 million for future defense.

In federal court, Merck currently has three victories and a loss. Merck has six state court victories, four losses and a mistrial.