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Kenneth Suggs, president-elect of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, is considering making a phone call to Sen. Orrin Hatch. Suggs wants to tell the Utah Republican to blame a Canadian who goes by the name of Leon Master — and not America’s trial lawyers — for a Web site that crows “Get Your Million Dollars From Vioxx Lawsuit.” The site links to several law firms, including Suggs’ Baltimore-based firm Janet, Jenner & Suggs, who have apparently entered deals with Google to serve up links to their firms alongside Vioxx-related content. Hatch pointed to the site at a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing as evidence of “a feeding frenzy from trial lawyers” against Merck & Co., the maker of the pain drug which has been shown to cause heart problems. The outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee chair is pushing for caps on damages against drug makers. Suggs protests that he had never heard of the site until a friend called to tell him that Hatch was reading from the text of the site, and that it linked to his firm. “My law firm was put on there totally without our knowledge, and we certainly didn’t pay this person. The claims that are made on there could get me disbarred,” Suggs said. The “million dollars” site provides no information about its creator except an e-mail address for potential advertisers. A request for comment sent to this address prompted no response. But according to research by ATLA, http://vioxx.x.yi.orglooks to be the work of a mysterious 29-year-old Ontarian who identifies himself on a hacking bulletin board as Leon Master. In addition to the million-dollar lure, the site claims that some firms “even pay $200 per signup, regardless of the outcome of the class action lawsuit.” It also encourages patients to buy the drug at pharmacies still selling Vioxx, which may then be sued. Lawyers agree that the site’s promises of financial gain as a result of Merck’s Sept. 30 recall of Vioxx are clearly unethical. “That is terrible. No wonder lawyers get a bad name,” said Heather Foster, a partner with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein currently involved in several Vioxx suits. Todd Schneider, who says his San Francisco firm Schneider & Wallace was linked to the “million dollars” site without his knowledge, was incensed. “We believe their Web site is immoral, illegal and unethical,” he said. Schneider said he has contacted the yi.org provider and Google, which apparently served up the ads, seeking to have the link to his firm pulled. But his attempts have so far been unsuccessful. “No one has been any help whatsoever,” he said. “Frankly, it’s an outrage.” Schneider said e-mails to [email protected]have so far gone unanswered. He also sent a note threatening suit to the British Columbia-based manager of the yi.org domain, Tyler MacDonald, but MacDonald declined to block the site and suggested that Schneider contact Google. MacDonald did not respond to a phone call seeking comment. An out-of-state lawyer whose firm is linked to the site said he had paid for online advertising, although he was not sure whether he had paid to be on www.vioxx.x.yi.org. “This is my first time online,” said Richmond, Va., solo D. Wayne O’Bryan. “I was approached by a marketing guy who saw the [Vioxx] news conference.” O’Bryan refused to say who the marketer was, and was not concerned that his ad is placed next to the assertion that lawyers are paying potential clients $200 to sign up as class members. The Vioxx recall has elicited both shame and enthusiasm from the plaintiff bar, which has unleashed a deluge of newspaper and TV ads and a multitude of Web sites soliciting clients who suffered cardiovascular problems while taking Vioxx. “It’s the biggest onslaught of people being interested in litigation that I’ve ever seen,” said Lieff Cabraser’s Foster, who said she is fielding about 50 calls a day from potential clients and other lawyers with referrals. Her firm has established its own online presence in response to the Vioxx recall. Associate Stephen Cassidy, Lieff Cabraser’s marketing director,said the firm’s site, http://vioxxlegalresources.com, aims to provide as much information — and as little sales pitch — as possible. “We’re not trying to be over the top. That’s not the style of our firm,” he said. Lieff Cabraser has set up similar sites for other defective product suits, and Cassidy said they don’t have to cross ethical lines to be effective marketing tools. But ethics experts say that a case as potentially lucrative as Vioxx can push firms hungry for a quick payout into the ethical nether regions. The “million dollars” site “is patently sleazy, but the question is whether it violates the ethics rules,” said Richard Zitrin, an ethics specialist and partner with Zitrin & Mastromonaco who advises plaintiff firms. “I think it’s unethical. And I’m a free-speechist on this.” Zitrin said that California State Bar sanctions are not an adequate deterrent for some firms that stand to gain money simply by accruing names. “You’ve got maybe the bottom feeders gathering clients to forward them on to some of the big class action firms,” he said. “Some of these lawyers will make their money by getting a little piece of a very big pie.” Another Bay Area legal ethicist, Walnut Creek’s Carol Langford, said that firms paying to be on the site should be held accountable. “The State Bar should go after them,” she said. Meanwhile, plaintiff attorneys insist that a single example of egregiously unethical advertising shouldn’t deflect blame for the Vioxx disaster away from Merck, which allegedly marketed the drug for three years after finding it was unsafe. “Wouldn’t you know that someone would turn it around so it’s all the trial lawyers’ fault?” said San Francisco solo Mary Alexander, who’s currently preparing about 50 separate Vioxx suits.

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