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$894 million deal ends pain of Pfizer’s lawsuits

Drug giant Pfizer Inc. has reached an $894 million deal to end most of the lawsuits over its two prescription pain relievers Celebrex and Bextra.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Drug giant Pfizer Inc. has reached an $894 million deal to end most of the lawsuits over its two prescription pain relievers, the popular Celebrex and a similar drug, Bextra, no longer on the market.

The world’s biggest drugmaker said Friday it has agreements in principle to end more than 90 percent of personal injury lawsuits brought by people claiming the pills caused heart attacks, strokes or other harm.

The settlement includes roughly 7,000 personal injury cases, mainly plaintiffs who took since-withdrawn Bextra, said plaintiff attorney Perry Weitz. He represents nearly 2,000 claimants, about 10 percent of them relatives of people who died.

“It gives Pfizer closure and the claimants their money sooner, rather than later or never at all,” Weitz said.

Pfizer hopes to finalize claims covered by the settlement, which now includes up to 92 percent of plaintiffs, by year’s end. It also hopes to include many of the remaining claimants in the settlement and will fight any remaining personal injury suits with court motions or at trial, General Counsel Amy Schulman told The Associated Press.

“I don’t think either side has an interest in protracting this,” Schulman said in an interview.

Weitz said plaintiff lawyers will “have issues” with Pfizer “if their claimants aren’t paid before the end of the year.”

Schulman said the deal comes after two important court rulings — one by a New York state judge overseeing many of the state-level personal injury cases and the other by a federal judge in San Francisco coordinating pretrial steps in federal lawsuits over the drugs.

“We teed up some pretrial motions for a court ruling on whether there was significantly reliable evidence that would allow an expert to testify as to whether there was an increased risk of heart attack and stroke at the most common dose,” 200 milligrams, Schulman said. Both judges ruled that was not the case, she said.

The proposed deal also would end suits by insurers and patients seeking to recover what they spent on Bextra and Celebrex, as well as claims by 33 states and the District of Columbia that Pfizer improperly promoted Bextra.

Out of the total settlement, $745 million will go to settle personal injury cases, $60 million will cover settlements with attorneys general in the 33 states and the District of Columbia, and $89 million will cover consumer fraud class action cases over reimbursement for money spent on the two drugs. Two additional states, Louisiana and Mississippi, still have pending cases regarding Pfizer’s promotion of the drugs.

New York-based Pfizer withdrew Bextra from the market in 2005, a year after Merck & Co. withdrew its Vioxx, a similar drug.

The Vioxx withdrawal, which triggered an avalanche of lawsuits against Merck, also raised concerns about the safety of other medicines in the same class, called Cox-2 inhibitors. They were heavily touted by their makers as superior to traditional nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, because they block an enzyme involved in promoting inflammation but — unlike NSAIDs — don’t block an enzyme that protects the stomach from bleeding and other side effects.

Other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, have also been linked to increased heart risks.

Celebrex is the only Cox-2 inhibitor that the Food and Drug Administration has allowed to remain on the U.S. market.

Attorney Christopher Seeger, a member of the plaintiffs steering committee, said he’ll “have no problem recommending” the settlement to the roughly 400 clients he represents.

“We’re very satisfied with the deal,” Seeger said.

Schulman said the company’s negotiations with opposing lawyers had been under way for some time but picked up in the late summer.

“Litigation can be distracting, and putting these matters behind us helps our shareholders and, most importantly, patients and doctors,” Schulman said.

Weitz noted that it took four or five years to get through trials for less than 20 cases in the massive Vioxx litigation, because the court system can only handle a limited number of cases at a time.

Pfizer will take a pretax charge of $894 million to its third-quarter earnings, which it is scheduled to report on Tuesday.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has begun paying a $4.85 billion settlement to end about 50,000 lawsuits brought by people claiming Vioxx cause heart attacks, ischemic strokes or death. It still faces other litigation over the former blockbuster arthritis treatment.