Lawsuits Over Bextra, Celebrex, Vioxx, and Other Arthritis Drugs (NSAIDs)

Learn about the history of NSAID lawsuits and recalls, what you need to know about a potential claim, and more.

Updated by , Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

Many people have suffered serious side effects from taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat arthritis and other health problems. In some cases, these side effects could form the basis for a product liability claim.

In this article, we'll discuss the history of health issues caused by certain NSAIDs and the major lawsuits people filed in response. We'll also tell you what you need to know about your own potential legal options if an NSAID has hurt you.

For general information about your options if you've suffered serious side effects from a prescription drug or other medication, you can read more about product liability claims involving pharmaceutical drugs.

Side Effects of NSAIDs

NSAIDs are available both for sale over-the-counter and as prescription medications. They can reduce fevers and relieve pain, including chronic pain from conditions like arthritis. These drugs are considered generally safe, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings for NSAIDs linking them to medical problems including:

  • increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death
  • increased risk of ulcers and bleeding of the stomach or intestines
  • kidney and liver problems, including failure
  • life-threatening skin rashes, and
  • life-threatening allergic reactions.

Recalls of Bextra, Vioxx, and Other NSAIDs

A specific kind of NSAID, called a "Cox-2 inhibitor," became popular because it causes fewer gastrointestinal problems. The reduced risk of side effects like ulcers makes these NSAIDs an appealing option, especially for people with arthritis, severe menstrual cramps, and other conditions that require long-term use of pain relievers.

But scientific studies found that several Cox-2 inhibitors caused dangerous and even fatal side effects. This finding led the FDA to recommend that manufacturers take these NSAIDs off the market. For example:

  • Vioxx (Merck's brand name for the drug rofecoxib) was pulled from the market in 2004 because long-term use of the drug increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Bextra (Pfizer's brand name for the drug valdecoxib) was pulled from the market in 2005 because it increased the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and life-threatening skin reactions.

On the other hand, similar drugs didn't raise the same safety concerns with the FDA, and are still available with a doctor's prescription. These medications include celecoxib (sold as Celebrex) and diclofenac (sold as Cataflam, Voltaren, and Arthrotec).

Product Liability Lawsuits Involving NSAIDs

In addition to these drug recalls, many people who used NSAIDs filed lawsuits against the manufacturers. In a product liability lawsuit, the plaintiff seeks compensation for injuries caused by a consumer product. When the product is a pharmaceutical drug, the most common claims are that:

  • the drug causes unreasonably dangerous side effects, and
  • the manufacturer, doctor, or pharmacy (among others) failed to provide adequate warnings or instructions about the drug.

When many people have similar product liability claims against one company, it's common for those cases to be combined in one of two ways:

Many of the lawsuits filed over recalled NSAIDs were consolidated into class actions or MDL cases, and ended with settlements covering thousands of plaintiffs. For example:

Keep in mind that, because of the very large number of plaintiffs, these high settlement amounts didn't translate into huge amounts for each individual.

Determining Whether You Have an NSAID Claim

If you've suffered health problems as a result of taking an NSAID, you might have a product liability claim against the drug manufacturer or others involved in your use of the drug. (Health care professionals like doctors and pharmacists could also be liable for medical malpractice.)

What You Have to Prove in an NSAID Claim

In a typical case, you're able to win an NSAID lawsuit only if you can prove that:

  1. you were injured
  2. the NSAID caused your injury, and
  3. either the NSAID has unreasonably dangerous side effects or you didn't get adequate warnings about or instructions for it.

In product liability claims involving NSAIDs, the outcome of the case often comes down to the second and third issues listed above, and the drug manufacturer and any other defendants will likely fight you on both.

If You Knew the Risks

Keep in mind that many drugs, including NSAIDs, are prescribed and sold over-the-counter even though they can be risky. Drug companies and health care providers are supposed to inform people of those risks. For example, the medication should come with warnings and a list of possible side effects. In addition, doctors should know their patients' medical histories and discuss the pros and cons of a particular treatment.

If you file a lawsuit over NSAID side effects, the defendants will be able to use the discovery process to find out what you knew about the risks of taking the drug. If you were advised of the risks of taking an NSAID, and you decided that the benefits of taking the drug outweighed the possible drawbacks, then you'll probably have a difficult time succeeding with a lawsuit.

But warning labels don't eliminate a drug manufacturer's responsibility for harm caused by their medications. If you have questions about whether you were properly informed of the risks of taking a particular NSAID, it would probably be helpful to speak with any attorney.

How Other Cases Can Affect Yours

If you've been hurt by a particular NSAID, there's a chance that others have suffered the same problems. That means cases like yours may have been combined into a class action or multidistrict litigation, which can limit your legal options.

Class action lawsuits. If there's a class action in progress, you may have to join the class instead of filing your own case. If you miss the deadline for joining then you'd lose your right to sue. Keep in mind, though, that these deadlines only apply to people who already know they've been hurt by a drug. If your health problems begin later, you still have a right to seek compensation.

Multidistrict Litigation. If there are many people suing the same company for the same reason as you, it means your case could be combined into MDL even if you'd prefer a separate lawsuit. It also means you can learn a lot about the strength of your own case if similar cases have already been dealt with through MDL.

If the MDL cases were dismissed, you wouldn't want to file a lawsuit that makes the same claim using the same evidence. On the other hand, if the MDL plaintiffs were successful then you may have a strong enough case to proceed with a lawsuit or negotiate a fair settlement with the drug company.

Time Limits for Filing a Lawsuit

Every state has a law called a "statute of limitations" that sets a deadline for bringing a product liability claim. If you're thinking about filing a lawsuit because you were hurt by an NSAID, it's important to know the time limit in your state.

If you've been injured and filing a lawsuit is your best option, you should get the process started sooner rather than later. You don't want to miss deadlines or wait so long that it becomes more difficult to prove your case or convince a court that your injuries were serious.

Getting Help With Your NSAID Case

Defective product cases involving NSAIDs or other pharmaceutical drugs usually aren't the kind of lawsuits in which you can represent yourself effectively. The legal and medical issues are often complex. In addition, the strength of your case—and even whether you can file a case at all—can depend a lot on how courts have handled similar lawsuits by other plaintiffs. If you have questions about your situation, you should look for an attorney with experience handling product liability and pharmaceutical cases.

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