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If all goes according to plan, on Jan. 16, W. Mark Lanier will begin trying as many as nine Vioxx-related cases — at the same time — before New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee. In 2003, the New Jersey Supreme Court designated Higbee to manage what are now nearly 15,000 Vioxx cases filed against Merck & Co. Inc. in New Jersey. On July 18, 2006, Higbee, taking suggestions from some of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, identified 39 of the Vioxx cases, then she asked plaintiffs lawyers to select no more than 10 of them to be tried at the same time, starting in January 2007, says her law clerk Meghan Quinlivan. Quinlivan says her judge wanted to schedule as many as 10 Vioxx cases together “as a way to explore different ways of handling the litigation.” Under the proposal, the first phase of the January trial would focus on general issues of Merck’s alleged failure to warn patients about concerns regarding Vioxx’s safety, and the second phase would deal with individual, case-specific issues, such as patients’ medical history. On Oct. 16, in response to Higbee’s request, plaintiffs counsel in the 39 cases narrowed that roster and sent a list of nine cases to be tried together. None of the cases have Texas residents as plaintiffs, but Lanier was the plaintiffs’ counsel in two of the nine cases. Previously, on Oct. 11, Lanier says the same of group of plaintiffs counsel decided on a voice vote that he will take the lead at the trial for those nine cases, assisted by Chris Seeger, a partner in New York’s Seeger Weiss. “They picked me,” Lanier says about his colleagues. But Hope Freiwald, a partner in Philadelphia’s Dechert and a defense lawyer for Merck in the Vioxx litigation, is hoping the judge won’t try those nine cases together. She says Merck objects to the grouping of the cases and questions whether that proposed scheduling will result in a “fair and equitable proceeding.” Says Freiwald, “We believe the only fair way to try these cases is individually.” She says the Vioxx users in the 39 cases selected by the judge had different doctors and medical conditions, making each case distinct and not a good candidate for a group trial. Merck has until Friday, Oct. 20, to file a motion for reconsideration, in which the company could object to the proposed scheduling of the nine cases. In 2005, Lanier, founder of Houston’s Lanier Law Firm, won a $253.5 million verdict against Merck, which is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. A jury in Angleton, Texas, handed Lanier the largest verdict so far against Merck in connection with the painkiller. The company voluntarily pulled the drug from store shelves in 2004.

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