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The New Jersey Supreme Court has consolidated all suits over the Merck & Co. drug Vioxx to an Atlantic County judge, marking the first time mass-tort litigation has been venued anywhere but Middlesex County. On June 5, Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee issued her first case management order in the matter, covering 16 cases in Atlantic, Hudson, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties. Until now, mass torts have been handled exclusively by Middlesex County Judge Marina Corodemus and her predecessors in that role. The shift occurred because the state Supreme Court felt other vicinages should shoulder some of the increasingly heavy load. “There seems to be a burgeoning of mass tort cases,” an Administrative Office of the Courts official says. “So the Supreme Court decided to identify other sites. Judge Higbee had some Vioxx cases already, so it seemed to make sense.” Higbee and Bergen County Judge Charles Walsh have been trained by Corodemus to handle mass torts. No cases have arrived in Bergen yet. “Right now it’s a relatively circumscribed tort,” said the AOC official, who asked not to be named. For Higbee, it’s likely the calm before the storm. Stephen Seeger of Seeger Weiss in Newark has 100 Vioxx clients whose cases he is prepping for Higbee’s court. Six of the existing 16 are his. “In the next couple of months, you’ll see the cases triple,” he says. The parties were ordered to preserve documents and physical evidence that may be relevant to the litigation. In addition, computer records are to be left untouched until opposing counsel have been notified of their existence and hard copies preserving the dates of the files have been made. Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory medicine, has attracted dozens of cases around the country with disparate claims of injuries. Most famously, former University of Southern Mississippi football running back Derrick Nix sued Merck after he took the drug following an ankle injury in 2000. The drug caused his kidneys to fail, requiring dialysis and an eventual transplant, in addition to the end of his career, Nix claimed. In August 2001, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Vioxx and a similar drug, Pharmacia’s Celebrex, may increase the risk of heart attacks. The study was criticized for simply summarizing earlier studies rather than reporting on a new clinical trial, but it appears to have spurred a wave of suits in various states. As a result of the JAMA report, the Food and Drug Administration in September 2001 ordered Merck to stop certain promotions for Vioxx because of inadequate warnings about its side effects. By October 2001, the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company noted in its third-quarter earnings report that “four federal lawsuits and a number of state lawsuits, involving individual claims as well as purported class actions, have been filed against the company.” The suits included allegations of gastrointestinal bleeding and cardiovascular problems, the company said. “Merck stands behind the efficacy and the safety profile of Vioxx, and we will vigorously defend the lawsuits,” says Mary Elizabeth Blake, a Merck spokeswoman. Merck has retained Wilfred Coronato, of counsel to Hughes Hubbard & Reed in Jersey City, N.J., who was not available for comment at press time. Higbee was appointed to Atlantic County’s Law Division in 1992. She presided over one of the largest personal injury verdicts of 1997, a $3.46 million award to the family of a child rendered deaf by an undiagnosed infection shortly after birth. In 2001 she oversaw a quirky settlement made between a boardwalk fortuneteller who had failed to rid a customer of a curse despite $200,000 in payments. The customer claimed that the astrologer’s promise to remove a “black aura” from him was a scam. Prior to taking the bench, she litigated medical malpractice cases on the plaintiffs’ side at Atlantic City, N.J.’s Targan, Higbee & Kievit.

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