Judge accepts Merck unit's plea in Vioxx case

Vioxx is a name that probably brings great pain to Merck ($MRK) execs--the controversy surrounding it just keeps going. But things seem to be winding down. A unit of the drug giant has pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge as part of the whopping $950 million settlement of a federal probe into the illegal marketing of the painkiller, Bloomberg is reporting.

As the news service notes, Merck Sharp & Dohme has agreed to plead guilty in a Massachusetts federal court to a single count of misbranding Vioxx. U.S. District Judge Patti Saris accepted the plea "because I think it's in the public interest at this point," she said, as quoted by Bloomberg. The plea is part of Merck's agreement to pay a $321.6 million criminal fine and $628.3 million in civil claims that it sold Vioxx for unapproved uses.

Late last year, the company agreed to pay that nearly $1 billion settlement to resolve allegations about its Vioxx marketing. The painkiller had been a top-seller for the company, generating $2.5 billion each year in sales. So it came as quite a blow to Merck when the painkiller was yanked from the market in 2004 after a study determined it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

A Merck official seemed relieved about the development. "The government recognized Merck's full cooperation with its investigation, and by putting this long-standing investigation to rest, we can more fully focus on discovering, developing and providing innovative medicines and vaccines that save and improve lives around the world," Ron Rogers said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg.

So, after billions in legal costs and settlements paid to patients, Merck officials are probably hoping to hear less and less about this former blockbuster med.

- check out the Bloomberg report