It started with a bang and a flurry.
But like some other self-serving, trial lawyer-ignited national crises, the saga over Merck's pain killer Vioxx is tiptoeing to a disappointing conclusion.
We don't mean disappointing for the lawyers themselves, of course. If on Jan. 15, as expected, tens of thousands of Vioxx plaintiffs agree to take average settlement payoffs of $200,000 each from the drugmaker, some members of the trial bar will share $2 billion in fees and expenses for their plaintiff-recruiting, lawsuit-filing industriousness.
Not bad, given it turns out Vioxx wasn't exactly the crisis promoted by the plaintiffs.
No, the drug isn't the lethal nuisance to society the lawyers claimed it was. Merck isn't totally responsible for causing thousands of heart attacks. After closer review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) says Vioxx is a safe and important product; it could soon be back on the market and available in pharmacies and hospitals.
Now they tell us, less than a year after Merck spent $600 million in legal fees defending against 27,000 Vioxx lawsuits, after millions of arthritic Americans were scared into forsaking the pain medicine and living in pain, and after Houston lawyer Mark Lanier compared the company to murderous dictator Sadaam Hussein.
In hindsight, maybe he was exaggerating a bit.
At least the metaphor served his purposes. Lanier, the history books will show, tried the very first Vioxx case against Merck right
here, in Brazoria County. And he won, convincing a jury of Angletonians to side with his client over the corporate version of Hussein, awarding her $250 million for her husband's heart attack death.
Like asbestos, the legal war over Vioxx has ugly roots in South Texas. As if we needed to be more infamous.
It's going quietly, but this sad, three-year chapter in U.S. jurisprudence should be forever remembered. That's not just for the two billion it profited some trial lawyers, but more tragically for how it wounded America's pharmaceutical industry and diverted funding for new drug development.
Think about it: would you rather those billions in fees and payouts enrich folks like Lanier, or be funnelled to Merck scientists and researchers working to find a cures for cancer and other diseases?
In the end, whose life was improved--the public's or the trial bar's?