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Yet another Hurricane Katrina “evacuee” has a home in Houston — the nation’s first federal trial involving Merck & Co.’s withdrawn painkiller, Vioxx. U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, who is overseeing hundreds of federal civil lawsuits related to Vioxx, has ruled the first one will proceed as scheduled on Nov. 28 in Houston rather than in its original venue. According to a court filing, the judge and attorneys discussed the date and venue for the case and agreed Houston “was an appropriate and convenient forum for the trial.” “He consulted with the parties and made his decision that Houston was the place to do it to keep the schedule,” Ted Mayer, one of Merck’s lawyers, said Friday. Fallon and a handful of his staff moved to temporary quarters at the federal courthouse in Houston earlier this month after the hurricane devastated New Orleans. The judge is handling pretrial coordination of more than 1,800 federal Vioxx lawsuits to streamline steps common to the cases, such as document gathering and witness depositions. The first trial is slated to last two weeks, Mayer said. The case centers on the May 2001 death of Richard Irvin Jr., a 53-year-old Florida man, who had a fatal heart attack after he took Vioxx for a month to alleviate back pain. His wife, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, claims in her lawsuit that her husband was in “very good health” when he started taking the once-popular painkiller. Mayer said Merck maintains that Vioxx didn’t cause Irvin’s death. Plunkett’s lawyer, Andy Birchfield of Montgomery, Ala., didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., pulled Vioxx from the market last September after a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. The drug, prescribed to relieve acute pain and arthritis while cutting risk of stomach bleeding, went on the market in 1999 and reached peak sales of $2.5 billion a year. Another 3,200 state and other Vioxx-related lawsuits are pending across the country. Last month, a jury in Angleton, Texas, about 40 miles south of Houston, slapped Merck with a $253.4 million verdict in the first state Vioxx case to go to trial. That amount is expected to be reduced to no more than $26.1 million under Texas caps on punitive damages, and Merck will appeal. The nation’s second state trial began last week in Atlantic City, N.J. The lawsuits largely claim Merck knew Vioxx could be dangerous years before the withdrawal but downplayed those concerns in favor of profits. Merck counters that the company was responsible and disclosed research. Merck has vowed to fight most of litigation, though the company has said it will consider settling lawsuits that involve long-term Vioxx usage. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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