As Merck & Co. Inc. vows to fight each of the 5,000 lawsuits involving Vioxx, local lawyers and judges must coordinate an increasing caseload.
About 1,650 California residents have filed lawsuits claiming that they or their family members suffered from strokes or died from taking the once-popular drug. All those cases are being handled out of Los Angeles.
Although the first local trial is not until next year, plaintiff's lawyers in Los Angeles have set up regional steering committees and are obtaining medical records and financial statements. Meanwhile, Merck has appointed local law firms to handle its defense while sticking to an overall message and legal strategy.
"The belief of the lawyers generally is this is going to be a long slough," said James O'Callahan, a partner at Girardi and Keese and liaison of the plaintiff's steering committee in California.
As of Aug. 15, 4,950 Vioxx cases had been filed against Merck in state and federal courts nationwide. The company has said it will deal with each case separately but "we will make reasonable decisions about how to proceed in defending each one of those cases," said Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for Merck's outside defense team.
More than 1,800 cases have been filed in federal court in New Orleans, where a judge had been appointed to oversee them. Those cases have trial dates for early next year, although the effects of Hurricane Katrina have left those plans in question.
Another 290 cases have been filed in federal courts outside of New Orleans.
In New Jersey, where Merck is based, about 2,400 cases have been coordinated and await their first trial this month. The remaining cases fall into state courts outside New Jersey, such as the 250 cases in Los Angeles involving 1,650 plaintiffs throughout the state.
Locally, more cases are likely to be filed. "I've seen horrible effects from strokes," said Paul Hedlund, a partner at Baum Hedlund PC in Los Angeles. "I'm getting people who took Vioxx and they're living, they're just horribly impaired."
Merck has denied any wrongdoing. "We believe we have meritorious defenses and intend to vigorously defend individual Vioxx cases one by one," said Merck spokeswoman Jeanine Clemente. "It is important to remember that each case has a different set of facts, and we expect to be trying them for many years."
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney, who is overseeing the California Vioxx cases, notified lawyers last week that all new lawsuits against Merck in California should be filed in Los Angeles Superior Court's downtown courthouse (papers are later transferred to the Central Civil West Courthouse.)
"Our goal is to try to move the cases along in an expeditious manner," said Dave Jetton, court administrative officer at Central Civil West Courthouse, where Chaney's courtroom is located.
State rules dictate that large tort actions be coordinated in a central courtroom. "Though there may be a large number of lawyers representing the 1,650 plaintiffs, it's not feasible to have 100 lawyers in court every day," said Mark Robinson, a partner at Robinson Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach who serves on the plaintiff's steering committee.
Initially, the California cases were coordinated under Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman who had set a trial date for July 2005. But Merck's local lawyers succeeded in throwing Lichtman out of the California cases, claiming that he lacked impartiality because he had used Vioxx several years ago. The cases were re-assigned to Chaney, who has yet to set a new trial date.
The California cases are "not on our front burner right now," said Jarrell, who noted that the company's primary focus is the upcoming trial in New Jersey handled by Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, the lead New York-based law firm representing Merck in the Vioxx litigation.
For now, plaintiff's lawyers are sharing their employees, office space and other resources to coordinate research. "It's a daunting task of having to evaluate not just your own medical records and the client's claims but all the millions of documents that are generated by the defense in their approval and review processes," said Bruce Fishelman, of counsel to Greene Broillet & Wheeler LLP, who has filed a dozen Vioxx cases this year. "You don't see this as an everyday event."
So far, Merck has produced more than 6 million documents, most of them e-mails, which are being retained at the office of a lawyer on the plaintiff's steering committee. The committee's job is to oversee all the California cases while serving as a point of contact for the defense team.
O'Callahan, who serves as liaison for the local plaintiff's steering committee, says he is placing calls to dozens of California lawyers seeking to file new suits and updating existing plaintiffs. He also meets regularly with a committee of local defense attorneys led by Michael Brown, a Los Angeles partner at Reed Smith. Brown declined to comment, referring all calls to Merck's headquarters.
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