When Vioxx hit the market, Donald Wenk did the same thing he always does after he picks up a new prescription. "I read everything I got from the drugstore," Wenk says. "I never noticed any heart warning." Instead, the new drug -- yet to be thoroughly tested for cardiac risks -- sounded like a medication custom-made for Wenk. He suffered from arthritis and lingering pain from multiple knee surgeries. And he was prone to ulcers like those sometimes linked to older painkillers. Thus, Wenk initially viewed Merck's ( MRK) new drug -- which promised pain relief without stomach bleeding -- as something of a miracle cure. Then Wenk, now 46, landed in the hospital three separate times with chest pains and heart ailments. He became the first person in his entire family to suffer from a cardiac problem. By now, Wenk has paid off thousands of dollars worth of heart-related hospital bills. He also spends about $85 a month on two heart medications he never needed before taking Vioxx. And he relies on his wife for financial support because, he believes, employers are reluctant to hire someone in poor health. Before, he supervised six Valvoline oil-change stores. Now, he can't even get employers to call him back. He remembers fuming after hearing about the Vioxx recall. "I don't blame medications for most things," he said. "But I feel betrayed and upset. Here is a medicine that, I was told, was going to help me. And instead, my situation just got worse." In the fourth of five articles probing Merck's troubles, TheStreet.com takes a look at the lawsuits being filed by former Vioxx patients and how the company -- and its investors -- could fare in the courthouse.
Medical experts believe that as many as 160,000 people have similar horror stories to share. William Federman, the attorney representing Wenk, has already collected hundreds of those stories himself. His Oklahoma City firm was among the first to file lawsuits after Merck jerked Vioxx from the market in late September. With thousands of cases expected -- and multiple government probes under way -- one analyst estimates that Merck could face legal damages totaling more than $50 billion.