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Federal lawsuits alleging the recalled blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx harmed patients will be transferred to a Louisiana judge experienced in major pharmaceutical litigation for coordinating discovery and other pretrial proceedings. A panel of federal judges on Wednesday assigned all pending Vioxx product liability lawsuits against Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based manufacturer Merck & Co. Inc. to Judge Eldon E. Fallon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. “We’re pleased with the case being transferred to New Orleans and to Judge Fallon,” said lawyer Andy Birchfield. His Montgomery, Ala., firm already has filed more than 100 Vioxx product liability suits and is evaluating about 20,000 others involving former Vioxx users who suffered strokes or heart attacks. “The court clearly has the resources to move this litigation forward in an efficient manner, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Birchfield said. “I would consider it a neutral court.” The judicial panel on multidistrict litigation in Fort Myers, Fla., last month heard arguments from Merck and plaintiffs attorneys on possible locations to handle pretrial steps in the massive litigation. Those steps include overseeing depositions of witnesses, document collection and ruling on pretrial motions. Merck has said it faces at least 575 individual product liability and personal injury lawsuits over Vioxx, plus another 70 seeking class action status. The litigation being transferred to Fallon so far includes 148 cases pending in 41 different federal courts. Fallon has been handling pretrial proceedings since 2000 in thousands of lawsuits involving the former severe heartburn drug Propulsid, withdrawn from the market by Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., part of Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J. A spokeswoman in Fallon’s court who declined to be named said Wednesday afternoon that Fallon would issue an order within a few days setting dates for meetings with attorneys to schedule the next steps. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market worldwide on Sept. 30, after its own research showed Vioxx sharply increased risk of heart attacks and strokes with long-term use. Analysts have since estimated that Merck’s legal liability ranges from $4 billion to $30 billion. “Merck intends to vigorously defend itself,” the company said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “Merck acted responsibly every step of the way — from researching the drug prior to approval to monitoring the drug while it was on the market.” Numerous other studies since September also have brought into question the safety of other painkillers in the same class as Vioxx, a category known as Cox-2 inhibitors. They are preferred by many doctors and patients because the drugs don’t cause the stomach and intestinal problems associated with other painkillers. Merck spokeswoman Casey Stavropoulos said company officials would not discuss their reaction to the pretrial proceedings being assigned to New Orleans. “It wasn’t one of the three preferred jurisdictions that we argued for back in January,” she said. Those included federal courts in Maryland, Chicago and Indianapolis, which Stavropoulos said “have the best resources to handle these cases.” Vioxx had been Merck’s No. 2 drug, generating about $2.5 billion in annual revenues. About 2 million people worldwide used Vioxx, which debuted with great fanfare in 1999. Many of the pending lawsuits were initiated before the recall. Plaintiffs attorneys and some doctors and consumer advocates allege Merck officials knew of the drug’s risks at least a few years ago and should have pulled it from the market sooner. Plaintiffs allege use of Vioxx caused problems such as heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage and gastrointestinal bleeding. The first cases are likely to come to trial as early as May, probably in New Jersey, Texas, Alabama and California, Stavropoulos said. Merck said it is still awaiting the panel’s decision on which federal court will handle more than a dozen lawsuits filed by shareholders accusing company officers of making misleading statements about Vioxx. Merck shares fell 33 cents, or 1.1 percent, to close at $29.02 on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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