Merck & Co. Inc. said today that a Texas woman, who blamed the recalled pain reliever Vioxx for her heart attack, has dropped her lawsuit two weeks before trial.
It was the latest dropped case among at least 27,100 personal-injury cases filed against Merck in the two years since Merck recalled Vioxx due to safety concerns. About 3,000 of the cases, or 11 percent, have been dropped, leaving 23,800 as of Oct. 9, Merck said.
It was unclear why the plaintiff, Sharon Rigby, dropped her claim. Her lawyer, David P. Matthews of Houston, did not return a call for comment this morning.
Merck said Rigby was a smoker with a family history of heart disease and has a claim pending against another drug company alleging it caused her heart problems.
Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Merck's outside defense attorneys, said plaintiff attorneys had selected Rigby's case for trial and Merck was ready to fight it. He called the decision to drop it evidence that plaintiffs are struggling and Merck is prevailing in its strategy of defending cases one by one.
'They don't stand up,' Jarrell said. 'In many cases they've been dismissed by a judge or the plaintiffs just fold up their tents.'
It was unclear whether an 11 percent dropped-case rate is high or low for a national personal-injury action.
The ultimate cost of the Vioxx liability is being closely watched by other drug companies and Wall Street analysts, whose estimates of Merck's final bill have ranged from $10 billion to $50 billion. The company is appealing all its losses so far and has not paid any plaintiffs.
Last week, the company said it has allocated another $598 million to cover lawyers' costs, bringing the total in reserve to $958 million. Merck has not reserved any funds for actual damages.
Jarrell said no other Vioxx trials are scheduled for Texas, although cases are still pending there and likely will be scheduled soon.
The next scheduled trials: one on Oct. 30 in federal court in New Orleans; two on Oct. 31 in California state court; one on Nov. 27 in federal court; one on Nov. 27 in Alabama state court; a consolidated trial on Jan. 16 in New Jersey Superior Court in Atlantic City involving several cases, and one in February in Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas.
In addition to individual personal injury claims, Merck said it faced 275 class-action lawsuits as of Oct. 9.
Merck shares were down slightly to $45.43 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company's headquarters are in Whitehouse Station, N.J., and its biggest single operation is in Montgomery County, where the drug giant's vaccine division, U.S. marketing division and other departments are located.