A state court judge has ordered Vioxx manufacturer Merck & Co. to begin settlement talks with the widow of an Alabama man who blames the pain medication for her husband’s death, attorneys in the case said Monday.

The closed-door session will be held at the Clay County Courthouse in Ashland, Ala., on Tuesday following a hearing before Circuit Judge John Rochester, who will consider a request from both sides to delay the trial, now set for May 23.

The trial would be the nation’s first over the once-popular pain medication if Rochester allows it to move forward. But U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon of New Orleans also has asked for a delay so the Alabama case would not interfere with federal litigation.

Merck attorney Mike Brock declined comment on the prospect of any settlement of the Alabama case, but the company in the past has said it intended to try Vioxx lawsuits one at a time.

Jere Beasley, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, Cheryl Rogers, said the judge ordered everyone involved in the case to attend the settlement conference.

“We’ll be there,” said Beasley.

Rochester last week refused to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Rogers, who claims Vioxx was to blame for the death of her 42-year-old husband, Brad, in 2001.

Merck contends medication had nothing to do with the man’s death and that samples Cheryl Rogers provided the company in the lawsuit didn’t leave the factory until six months after her husband died.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., removed Vioxx from the market in September after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients taking the drug for more than 18 months.

More than 2,400 lawsuits have been filed involving Vioxx. Another state lawsuit is set for trial on May 31 in Texas, and the plaintiffs lawyer there is planning to continue.

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