Based in the United States, Merck is one of the largest and wealthiest pharmaceutical companies in the world. In 2009, the company announced revenues of over $27 billion. Unfortunately, pushing for such huge profits sometimes means that safety and product testing fall by the wayside. Merck has agreed to pay out $100 million to settle a class action suit stemming from the once-popular NuvaRing contraceptive device. The numbers are high, but some victims feel the settlement is little more than a slap on the wrist.
Merck Introduces NuvaRing Birth Control
The birth control pill, often known simply as “the Pill,” gained steady popularity throughout the ’60s and beyond after being approved for by the FDA in 1960. Decades have passed since then, and medical science has made leaps and bounds. Today, women can choose between countless brands and varieties of birth control pills — in addition to alternative contraceptive methods.
For people who hate swallowing tablets, have trouble sticking to a schedule, or simply have other preferences, Merck’s NuvaRing device seems like an ideal solution. The NuvaRing is quite literally a squishy, flexible ring, which releases a steady stream of hormones into the body while inserted. The hormones are the same as those which would be typically found in the pill, but without the associated hassle and obligation to stick to a routine.
Sadly, the NuvaRing turned out to be an extremely dangerous and defective medical product. In some cases, it was fatal.
NuvaRing Leads to Fatal Blood Clots in Lungs
The FDA first approved NuvaRing for use in the fall of 2001. It was released onto the consumer market in the summer of 2002 — and just a few years later, the debilitating and even deadly health risks began to emerge.
In 2012, a study published in the prestigious BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) confirmed that women using NuvaRing were 6.5 times more likely to develop deep vein thrombosis, more commonly referred to as a blood clot. Clots form because the blood is not circulating properly through the body. Clots can be fatal, and the typical courses of treatment involve surgery, medication, or an aggressive combination of both. But by the time the study was published, the damage had already been done.
In 2009, 17-year-old St. Louis native La Monica Greene innocently began using NuvaRing, thinking it would be a harmless device which would reduce the risk of pregnancy. Less than a month later, she tragically passed away. Prior to her wrongful death, Greene experienced pains in her chest, and had difficulty breathing — symptoms usually associated with serious medical events like heart attacks. True to what studies would later support, doctors discovered a blood clot inside one of the teenager’s lungs. Greene’s family would represent only one of thousands of claimants in the litigation to come.
Megan Henry was another victim, with a story eerily similar to Greene’s. Henry was “lucky” enough to survive her ordeal, but her life will never be the same. Once an Olympic hopeful whose life was dedicated to rigorous training, Henry’s dreams have been devastated by the harmful effects of the NuvaRing. Like Greene, Henry developed health problems almost immediately — only 10 days after first inserting the NuvaRing. Like Greene, she reported having a hard time breathing. Like Greene, she was found to have clotting in her chest. (The fact that she survived is particularly remarkable considering that there were multiple clots in each lung.)
And, like Greene, she has added her name to the long list of litigants.
Is the Settlement “Cost Effective” or “Laughable”?
The first lawsuit related to NuvaRing emerged in the spring of 2008, long before La Monica Greene or Megan Henry would be hurt by the device. The wrongful death suit was filed by New Jersey man Robert Bozicev after his 32-year-old wife Jackie died from a blood clot.
Bozicev alleged that drug manufacturer Orgnanon, which was acquired by Merck, was negligent in its marketing and distribution. While the site has since been updated in the aftermath of highly publicized controversy, NuvaRing’s site once proclaimed only that “the most common side effects reported by NuvaRing users are: vaginal infections and irritation, vaginal secretion, headache, weight gain, and nausea.” In other words, mild annoyances that most people would tolerate: no mention of blood clots or increased risk of death. Bozicev was the first, but he was far from the last. Since then, NuvaRing has been responsible for at least 38 deaths, numerous incidents of sickness and injury, and more than 1,850 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits.
The latest class action suit against Merck was scheduled to go to trial in April of 2014, but two months earlier in February, the pharmaceutical giant decided to settle for a total of $100 million. Divided across roughly 1,850 plaintiffs, that tallies up to an award of about $54,000 for each (though reports state damages closer to $58,000). Some, like Megan Henry, do not think number that is sufficient for all the death and suffering NuvaRing inflicted.
“Plaintiffs can either opt in or not,” says Henry, “but the settlement is a laughable offer to rectify damages.” She says the offer is “hardly compensation,” and points out the discrepancy between Merck’s staggering profits and the comparatively small payout. And she has a point. NuvaRing is not the only modern spin on “the Pill” to go horribly (and very publicly) awry. Around the same time the NuvaRing crisis was underway, German company Bayer — which ironically ranks just behind Merck in terms of revenue — offered up a settlement of $1.6 billion to victims of Yaz and Yasmin (which also increased risk of blood clots dramatically).
According to Roger Denton, lead attorney representing plaintiffs, “The settlement program is a simplified and cost effective method that will bring the most compensation to the injured claimants and is fully endorsed by Judge Rodney Sippel, the MDL judge in St. Louis, Judge Brain Martinotti, the presiding mass tort judge in New Jersey, as well as the court-appointed mediator, retired federal Judge Wayne Andersen of Chicago.”
Henry, whom Denton supposedly speaks for, does not feel the suit is “in the best interests of all the women who have suffered an injury associated with the use of NuvaRing.” Yet according to Henry — one of those women — “It will be hard [to accept the settlement]. A lot of families who lost daughters are just heartbroken. They feel they cannot morally accept the compensation, and other people just feel they can not accept knowing that Merck is essentially getting away with murder.” She says the offer is “laughable.”
According to Merck spokesperson Lainie Keller, “Nothing is more important to Merck than the safety of our medicines and vaccines and the people who use them.” Perhaps that’s how Merck felt about the people who died from taking Vioxx, too.
If you or someone you love has been hurt by a prescription medication, you may have a strong personal injury claim. For a free consultation, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.