Friday, November 16, 2007
Article in the Wall Street Journal -- Vioxx Plaintiffs' Choice: Settle or Lose Their Lawyer, by Nathan Koppel. Here's an excerpt:
Plaintiffs in litigation over the painkiller Vioxx are supposed to be able to decide whether to enroll in the übersettlement announced last week or take their cases to court. But due in part to what lawyers say is an unusual provision in the settlement agreement, many plaintiffs in effect may have little choice but to accept the deal.
The provision, agreed to by Merck & Co. and the lead lawyers in the case, requires that if one client of an attorney enrolls in the settlement, then the attorney must recommend the deal to all other clients. If a client decides not to take part in the settlement, then the lawyer, according to the deal, must take "all necessary steps" to withdraw from representing that client. It is relatively rare for a settlement to require lawyers to cut ties with clients, but it appears to be happening more often, lawyers say.
Some find the development problematic. The provision improperly "stacks the choice for the client," says Deborah Rhode, an ethics professor at Stanford Law School. "If the price of exercising what should be their right to reject the settlement means they have to forfeit their representation from the lawyer actually familiar with the case, it's not exactly an uncoerced choice."
Merck pulled the widely used painkiller Vioxx from the market in September 2004 because it was tied to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Thousands of lawsuits ensued, and after three years, Merck and the lead plaintiffs lawyers negotiated a $4.85 billion settlement, announced Friday.