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Atlantic County, N.J., is fast becoming a forum of choice for centralization of mass tort cases, to the point where the New Jersey Supreme Court may divert additional resources to help the Atlantic-Cape May vicinage handle the load. Since June 2003, the court has assigned to Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee suits over the arthritis drug Vioxx. The number of cases has risen to 175 from about 20 a year ago, and will likely mushroom since Merck & Co. pulled Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30, citing increased risk of heart attack and stroke. More recently, the court consolidated with Higbee all suits over health problems caused by hormone replacement therapy (HRT) products. About 150 cases from Atlantic, Somerset, Middlesex and Hudson counties have been centralized. Michelle Perone, civil courts program chief for the Administrative Office of the Courts, says Higbee’s court was chosen largely because other vicinages handling mass torts have full caseloads. In Bergen County, Judge Charles Walsh has two mass tort dockets, including diet drugs, which account for 5,700 cases. In Middlesex, Judge Marina Corodemus is managing four mass tort dockets, including tobacco and asbestos, with more than 400 cases combined. Perone says Higbee’s experience in handling HRT cases and mass torts also factored largely in the assignment. Appointed to the Law Division in 1992, she presided in 1997 over one of the largest personal injury verdicts, a $3.46 million award to the family of a child rendered deaf by an undiagnosed infection shortly after birth. Before taking the bench, she was a plaintiffs’ medical malpractice lawyer at Targan Higbee & Klevit in Atlantic City, N.J. In her first HRT case management order, issued on Sept. 21, Higbee told parties to preserve documents and physical evidence that may be relevant to litigation and to leave computer records untouched until opposing counsel have been notified of their existence. The judge plans to have her first conference with counsel on Nov. 4, says Teresa Ungaro, manager of Atlantic’s Civil/General Equity Division. The AOC is aware, Perone says, that as the cases grow, more resources will be needed to handle them. “It was contemplated that they would get additional resources depending on what volume of cases come in,” she says. “We’ll have to wait and see.” Perone notes that the Supreme Court earlier this year authorized additional staff and equipment to help Bergen County with its heavy mass tort caseload. That vicinage got computers, a device that produces real-time transcriptions and five more people, which brought its total mass tort staffing to 10. A NATIONAL WAVE HRT suits have been mounting nationwide since July 2002, when the National Institutes of Health found an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, blood clots and some cancers from HRT drugs, which are used by 20 percent to 50 percent of women aged 45 to 70. Madison, N.J.-based Wyeth develops the two leading HRT products on the market, Prempro and Premarin. A Wyeth spokesman says, “We believe HRT is defensible.” He says subsequent studies have shown that Prempro does not increase the risk of cancer and that warning labels on Wyeth’s HRT products “have always been consistent with the then-current state of medical knowledge.” Wyeth’s 10-Q financial report filed on June 30 says the company is defending 1,870 HRT actions. Porzio Bromberg & Newman in Morristown, N.J., and McCarter & English in Newark, N.J., are among the defense firms. HRT plaintiffs’ firms in New Jersey include Williams Cuker & Berezofsky in Cherry Hill, N.J., Eichen Levinson in Edison, N.J., and Bogart Keane Ryan & Hammill and Parker & Waichman, both of Newark. Vioxx lawsuits began mounting in September 2001 after the Food and Drug Administration ordered Merck to cease certain promotions because of inadequate warnings about side effects. Vioxx plaintiffs lawyers expect a crush of Vioxx suits in the wake of Merck’s recall after the FDA reported that widespread use of the anti-inflammatory drug may have led to more than 27,000 heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths. “We’re getting a lot more inquiries from all over the country,” says Sol Weiss, a Philadelphia-based partner with Anapol, Schwartz, Weiss, Cohan Feldman & Smalley, whose Cherry Hill office has 86 Vioxx cases filed in Atlantic County, up from about 15 a year ago. “Our caseload will most likely get a lot larger,” adds Christopher Seeger of Seeger Weiss in Newark, which has 300 Vioxx clients.

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