NZers unable to benefit from drug firm's $6.3b compensation fund
5:00AM Monday November 12, 2007
By Erroll Kiong
The 15 New Zealanders fighting drug maker Merck over the painkiller Vioxx will not benefit from a $6.33 billion fund the company has set up.
The US drugs giant announced on Friday that it had agreed to pay US$4.85 billion ($6.3 billion) to settle most claims that its painkiller Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes in thousands of users.
Fifteen New Zealanders are among tens of thousands worldwide seeking to sue the company, alleging they suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking the painkiller.
Vioxx was taken off the market in September 2004 after it was found to double the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients taking it for at least 18 months.
At the time, about 15,000 New Zealanders were using the drug for pain and inflammation. The lawyer for the 15 New Zealanders, Brisbane-based Damian Scattini, said the fund excluded people outside the US. But he saw it as a "positive development".
"It's encouraging that Merck realises that they have a problem that they have to deal with and they won't go away."
But the cases of the New Zealand claimants - like other non-US claimants - are still on hold, pending a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court on whether to hear the case in the US or in the claimants' home countries.
Merck had filed a motion to try the cases in the claimants' home countries, arguing that hearing each case before a US court would clog up the court system.
If that motion was upheld, Mr Scattini said his New Zealand clients would effectively be left with no forum for their claims, as under New Zealand accident compensation law, they cannot sue for damages.
He said it was not for him to comment on the law, but believed the case should be heard before a US court.
"In circumstances where Merck is headquartered in New Jersey, made its decisions in New Jersey, decided what to advertise in New Jersey, [but] someone took this pill in New Zealand, then it's in New Jersey where [the company] should be held accountable. That's where they made their decisions."
But Mr Scattini was open to the prospect of settlement.
"If Merck wants to talk I'm sure we'd be amenable to settling, as it's always in everyone's best interests."