By Kathy Marks and Robert Verkaik
Saturday, 6 March 2010
The 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.
The 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.
Norman 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."
The 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.
Even 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: ...