You knew it couldn't last forever. Every time I heard a Merck (NYSE:MRK) lawyer say that the company would fight each and every one of the 60,000 Vioxx lawsuits, I just laughed at the posturing. A settlement was the only way to get the looming unknown off its back; the only question was when and for how much.

Now we know the answers -- last Friday and $4.85 billion. That number may sound large, but given the $1.2 billion the company has already spent on legal fees, it looks like Merck is getting off pretty easy.

Patients will be able to get a piece of that settlement if 85% of the plaintiffs agree to the deal. My guess is that plaintiffs will jump at the guaranteed money, given that Merck has so far won 10 out of 15 Vioxx-case rulings.

Merck claims to have covered its basis and protected itself from ballooning settlement costs. It certainly doesn't want to follow in Wyeth's (NYSE:WYE) footsteps with its fen-phen settlement, which has increased five times above the original $3.75 billion after repeated revisions. Only time will tell whether the settlement is really as ironclad as the high-paid lawyers say it is.

Now that the Vioxx issue is mostly behind it, Merck can continue to concentrate on its growth. It has reported double-digit year-over-year EPS growth for the first nine months of the year, thanks to the cholesterol drugs it markets with Schering-Plough (NYSE:SGP), the addition of diabetes drug JANUVIA, and cervical cancer vaccine GARDASIL.

While GARDASIL will start receiving competition from GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE:GSK) Cervarix soon, coming quarters will see the addition of sales from HIV drug ISENTRESS and hopefully cholesterol drug CORDAPTIVE, if it receives FDA approval. Merck has a ways to go before it will reach its pre-Vioxx lawsuit highs, but removing the great unknown cost of the Vioxx threat is a step in the right direction.

Here's some lawsuit-free Foolishness about Merck: