Lining up suits against painkillers

Litigation: Law firms collect complaints, but winning cases might be hard.

December 23, 2004|By Laura Vozzella and Ivan Penn | Laura Vozzella and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Hours after the safety of a blockbuster arthritis drug was called into question last week, a new Web page popped up on injuryboard.com, inviting patients to summarize their "Celebrex experience" and then click a button to submit their "case" to a personal injury lawyer.

Move over tobacco, asbestos and fen-phen.

The next big wave of lawsuits to hit courthouses across America is likely to target the makers of Celebrex, Vioxx and Bextra - similar and enormously popular painkillers now suspected of increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

"It sounds a little like the tobacco business," said Donald Saiontz, senior partner of Saiontz, Kirk & Miles, a Baltimore firm that advertises heavily and has been seeking Vioxx clients on its Web site.

"They know they're going to get their rear ends sued."

But the anticipated flurry of lawsuits doesn't mean the cases will be slam-dunks.

Some personal injury lawyers concede that the suits will be difficult because heart attacks and strokes - the problems blamed on the drugs - are common afflictions with many causes.

Individual patients have filed lawsuits involving the new class of painkillers almost since their inception in the late 1990s.

But the volume is expected to explode now that Vioxx has been pulled from the market, a clinical trial of Celebrex has been shut down, and federal regulators are questioning the safety of Bextra for some heart patients.

Since Friday, when the Celebrex study was halted and the Food and Drug Administration expressed "great concerns" about the drug, hundreds of patients have sought out lawyers through the Celebrex page on injuryboard.com.

A Celebrex page

The Web site, which solicits a wide variety of personal injury claims, has provided information about Celebrex almost since the site launched in 2001, according to its president, Nick Carroll. But when bad news about Celebrex broke Friday, the drug got a separate page - and a flood of responses.

"We've had fourfold increase in volume just in the last several days," said Marc Bern, whose New York City firm, Napoli Bern LLP, gets referrals from the site.

The same is true for personal injury attorneys who get cases the old-fashioned way. "Just since last Friday, the Celebrex numbers have shot through the roof," said Paul Sizemore of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery, Ala.

The firm claims to have more Vioxx cases - 400 of them - than any other.

"I can't tell you how many lawyers have contacted us," Sizemore said.

Suits against Vioxx

Merck & Co. pulled its painkiller Vioxx from the market Sept. 29 after identifying an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. As of Nov. 30, the firm was aware of about 475 Vioxx lawsuits, involving approximately 1,100 plaintiffs, he said.

Tony Plohoros, a Merck spokesman, said the company plans to fight the suits - and oppose efforts to consolidate them into class-actions.

"We're going to defend any lawsuits brought against us vigorously, and we do wish to try these cases individually because they are individual," Plohoros said.

"Each plaintiff is an individual based on his or her medical history."

Federal researchers halted a clinical trial of Celebrex as a potential cancer-fighter Friday after finding that subjects taking 400 mg of the drug were 2.5 times as likely to have serious heart problems as those taking a placebo. At a dose of 800 mg, the risk was 3.4 times higher.

On Monday, the government halted another Celebrex trial, this one testing its effectiveness in preventing Alzheimer's disease. Although that trial did not indicate problems with Celebrex, the results did indicate that the painkiller naproxen, also being tested on Alzheimer's, might increase the risk of heart attack. So the naproxen trial was discontinued, too.

Pfizer Inc., which makes Celebrex, has kept its product on the market, arguing that its own studies have shown no increased risk of heart problems. The company also continues to sell Bextra, the subject of an FDA warning last week that the drug might pose hazards to those recovering from heart bypass surgery.

"We don't make decisions based on concerns about litigation," said Bryant Haskins, a spokesman for Pfizer. "We make decisions on what's in the best interest of our patients."

The flood of lawsuits hardly guarantees success for the plaintiffs, the pharmaceutical industry and trial lawyers agree.

Protection for makers

That will be especially true if several pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation - all of which died in the past session of Congress - are revived as expected early next year, according to Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

Under those measures, the maker of any drug or medical device approved by the FDA would not be subject to punitive damages, unless the maker deceived or bribed the agency to win approval, Carl said.

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