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The federal Vioxx cases took a major step forward on Friday when U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon selected a plaintiffs steering committee that will help shepherd what is expected to be lengthy and complex litigation. Merck & Co. took Vioxx off the market last year after it was linked to an increased risk of heart attack and strokes, opening the floodgates for over a thousand lawsuits. A spot on the committee is coveted because its members navigate issues that can affect the outcome of the cases such as gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, choosing expert witnesses and developing overall strategy. They also meet with the judge and Merck’s lawyers regularly. The committee members also gain prestige which leads to more clients and potentially more money. Interest in the case has been huge because the potential payout could be enormous. Analysts have estimated that Merck may have to pay out anywhere from $4 billion to $30 billion. There were 1,357 product liability lawsuits filed against Merck as of March 9, 2005, according to papers the company filed with the court. Of those, 127 have been moved to Fallon and more than 400 others are expected to wind up in his court. Fallon will handle all pretrial proceeding and then the cases will be returned to their original jurisdictions. Co-lead counsels are Andy D. Birchfield Jr. of Montgomery, Ala., and Chris Seeger of New York City. They join Russ Herman of New Orleans, who is the liaison counsel to the judge in making up the steering committees’ Executive Committee. The other lawyers are: Richard J. Arsenault of Alexandria, La.; Elizabeth Cabraser of San Francisco: Thomas R. Kline of Philadelphia; Arnold Levin of Philadelphia; Carlene Rhodes Lewis of Houston; Gerald E. Meunier of New Orleans; Troy A. Rafferty of Pensacola, Fla.; Drew Ranier of Lake Charles, La.; Mark P. Robinson Jr. of Newport Beach, Calif., and Christopher V. Tisi of Washington, D.C. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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