Defense Lawyers the Only Winners Thus Far in Vioxx Claims
By Meaghan Olson
Proponents of tort reform often claim that attorneys are the ones making money at the expense of society in civil litigation. They're right. But it isn't, as they suggest, personal injury lawyers who are cleaning up-nor is it plaintiffs' lawyers at the root of the problem.
The recent and pending Vioxx litigation provides a clear and stunning example of the way that defense attorneys for large corporations and insurance companies are the true winners in civil litigation. And they're making their money at the direct expense of the people tort law is intended to protect.
Personal injury law exists for a reason: to make sure that people who are injured and who suffer losses through the negligence of a third party-whether that's an individual or a business-receive fair compensation to "make them whole". Businesses and individuals alike carry insurance to make sure that those obligations are met if an accident occurs. And then they stall, refuse to make payment, and employ every tactic imaginable to avoid providing fair compensation.
Tens of thousands of people died and many more suffered damage to their health because Merck decided to withhold information about known dangers of Vioxx. To those tens of thousands of victims, Merck has reportedly paid nothing in damages. Verdicts entered against the company have been appealed, and it could take years for the process to come to a final conclusion.
At the end of 2005, the company replenished its legal defense fund with another $295 million, bringing the total reserved for Vioxx defense to $685 million-not including the $285 million the company spent on Vioxx defense in 2005. That's nearly a billion dollars that's gone to legal defense instead of to compensating victims who suffered life-long injuries or lost loved ones.
Merck could have used that billion dollars to compensate thousands of victims, but instead those dollars went straight into the pockets of Merck lawyers-lawyers who are losing cases across the country but succeeding in delaying payment of those awards. And Merck must be feeling pretty confident, because the amount set aside to compensate the estimated 88,000 to 138,000 victims over the next two years is reportedly equivalent to the amount Merck has paid out in compensation already: absolutely nothing.
Insurance companies and big business across the United States send a continual message that litigation expenses are raising prices, raising premiums, even driving them out of business. The simple, obvious point they're hoping consumers will miss is that if they didn't make decisions intended to save money at the expense of the health and welfare of society, there would be a lot less litigation. And if there are mistakes, as there always will be, they could cut litigation expenses dramatically by simply offering fair compensation to the injured parties. Instead, Merck and other companies pay hundreds of millions of dollars to lawyers to make sure that their victims don't see a dime.