Merck & Co’s liability in the wake of a recent decision finding the US giant negligent in the first ever case concerning a patient who took the painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib) could rise to as much as $50 billion dollars, reports suggest [[22/08/05a]].

The judge presiding over the case of Robert Ernst, who died suddenly in his sleep after taking Vioxx for tendonitis, awarded his widow in excess of $250 million dollars. Although this could be slashed significantly because of state legislation capping punitive damages, the decision could encourage a wave of additional lawsuits, sending the numbers sharply upwards from the current figure of 4,200 [[23/08/05c]]. Some estimates have been put at 100,000 cases.

Analysts are variously suggesting Merck’s liability stands between $5 billion and $50 billion and, despite the uncertainty, investors are running scared with shares in the company yesterday seeing more heavy trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

But in a much more cautious, skeptical world, Merck is not alone in its suffering, and shares in other majors deemed to have higher-risk drugs are also falling. Under the spotlight at the moment include GlaxoSmithKline’s antidepressant Seroxat/Paxil (paroxetine) [[23/08/05a]], Eli Lilly’s antipsychotic Zyprexa [[05/08/05a]] and Abbott’s obesity treatment Meridia (sibutramine) [[18/08/05a]].

Yet Merck is still standing by its appeals route and resisting calls to establish a liability fund, according to a report in The Times newspaper, which quoted the company as saying the verdict “does not provide a basis for the establishment of a liability reserve for the case or for the litigation as a whole.” Its next trial is in less than three weeks’ time in New Jersey, in the case of Frederick Humeston vs Merck: Mr Humeston, a former US marine, says he suffered a heart attack whilst taking Vioxx in 2001.