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Atlantic County, N.J., Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee told lawyers Nov. 17 that the next Vioxx trial would begin on Jan. 30, and lawyers on both sides say they expect it to be a suit over a death. Higbee, who is overseeing the state’s 3,500 Vioxx cases, also said that trial would be followed by another one on March 27. But she has not yet decided which cases would be heard on those dates. She will announce the order of the next seven cases on Nov. 28. The judge is picking the cases from a pool of plaintiffs who took the Merck & Co. Inc. painkiller for 18 months or more. The nation’s first case, in Texas, yielded a $253 million verdict for the widow of a Vioxx user who suffered a heart attack and died. The second case, before Higbee last month and filed by a man who took Vioxx intermittently for two months and survived a heart attack, ended in a defense verdict. Meanwhile, Higbee asked lawyers on both sides to brief whether it’s possible to group some cases together. Two lawyers say there’s Appellate Division case law that recommends consolidation. Merck has maintained it will try each case individually. But the plaintiffs lawyers fear that strategy could take too long and end up denying their clients their day in court. “The judge is putting procedures in place,” says a lawyer who attended the session. “She told all of us to … be prepared for a January 30th trial date.” Ted Mayer of New York’s Hughes Hubbard & Reed, who attended the status conference, issued a statement afterward saying the company expected it would be trying cases over users who took Vioxx for at least 18 months. Higbee has said that more than 60 percent of the cases filed in New Jersey involve plaintiffs who took the drug for 10 months or more. Her decision to focus on longer-term exposure plaintiffs came after the defense verdict last month. The next group of plaintiffs will be represented by W. Mark Lanier, who won the Texas case; Perry Weitz; David Jacoby; Michael Ferrara; Gene Locks and Christopher Placitella. Higbee has given approval for them to take depositions of public relations and marketing consultants Merck used, and the plaintiffs lawyers say that new evidence will bolster their cases. Lanier has resigned as the Texas representative in the federal Vioxx multidistrict litigation before U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana, who is presiding over the next Vioxx trial, set to begin Nov. 29 in Houston.

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