Merck & Co. will pay $4.85 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits over the painkiller Vioxx in one of the largest civil cases ever, the company said Friday.

Merck faced about 26,600 lawsuits representing 47,000 plaintiffs, plus about 265 potential class action cases, filed by people or family members who claimed the drug proved fatal or injured its users. The agreement is to cover cases filed in federal and state courts.The deal becomes binding only if 85 percent of all plaintiffs agree to drop their cases. It was finalized in the early morning hours after attorneys for Merck and the plaintiffs met with three of the four judges overseeing nearly all Vioxx claims.Yet negotiating teams met more than 50 times in eight states and spoke hundreds of times over the telephone to hammer out the deal, according to attorneys.Merck could put the uncertainty of millions of dollars in possible settlements that have plagued the pharmaceutical company behind it, though it has been successful fighting cases individually.Analysts predicted early on that liability could reach $50 billion, but after losing its first case in a $253 million verdict, Merck has won a string of civil cases in numerous states.The company said last month it had added $70 million to its reserves for defending lawsuits over the blockbuster painkiller that it pulled from the market three years ago. As of Sept. 30, Merck had reserved a total of $1.92 billion for legal expenses and spent a total of $1.2 billion.Payments would vary, depending on injuries and the length of time that Vioxx was used.”We’ve been asked by the judge to talk to the plaintiffs and we are talking to them,” Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Merck, told the New York Times. “Right now, there is no finalized agreement.”Two attorneys, however, confirmed it independently, the Times reported.Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., still faces a number of government investigations, both state and federal. Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.