The opening bell is about to sound in the biggest bout of Chris Seeger’s career.
But this time, the former amateur boxer isn’t fighting in the ring. Seeger, who gave up boxing for the law nearly two decades ago, is taking on global pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. in the second personal injury trial over the painkiller Vioxx.
The trial, in state Superior Court in Atlantic City, began Monday with 325 jurors filling out questionnaires. Opening statements will follow in a couple days.
“I look at it like a heavyweight championship,” Seeger said. “I’m up against a top legal team.”
Barely three weeks ago, the first trial ended with a Texas jury stunning Whitehouse Station-based Merck with a $253.4 million verdict. That amount will likely be slashed to about $26 million because Texas caps punitive damages.
Seeger, 45, already has been a key player in several big lawsuits against drug makers, mostly recently helping to win a $690 million settlement from Eli Lilly & Co. in June for patients who claimed they developed diabetes or gained weight while taking the psychiatric drug Zyprexa.
Nina Gussack, who represented Eli Lilly, found Seeger was good at identifying key issues while not getting buried in details.
“I would think he’d be a formidable adversary at trial,” she said.
Seeger is the lead plaintiff counsel for approximately 2,475 Vioxx lawsuits pending in New Jersey and co-lead counsel for 2,100 lawsuits now consolidated in federal courts. And Seeger this summer won class-action status for a lawsuit on behalf of insurers and union health plans seeking reimbursement for Vioxx they bought for plan members.
Seeger and more than 20 other attorneys at his firm are juggling about 500 Vioxx cases either filed in or headed for state courts.
“I run out of my house every day to go to work,” said the easygoing Seeger. Married with three young sons, he lives in Englewood, a tony community just minutes from Manhattan, and still pounds a heavy bag in his basement gym.
Many cases could be affected by how well Seeger does in this week’s trial. His client is Idaho postal worker Frederick “Mike” Humeston, 60, who survived a heart attack in 2001 after using Vioxx briefly for lingering pain from a Vietnam War shrapnel wound.
“I think I’ve got a good chance, but I can also lose it,” said Seeger, who will be handling the trial with David Buchanan, a partner at his firm, Seeger Weiss LLP.
Seeger was one of the first lawyers to file a Vioxx lawsuit, a few years before Merck pulled the blockbuster arthritis drug from the market last September. That came after its own study showed Vioxx doubled risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use.
“Chris has been involved in this litigation from the very beginning. He knows it extremely well,” said plaintiff attorney Mark Lanier, who beat Merck in the Texas trial.
Noting Seeger’s boxing background, Lanier said Seeger has a “good mental game” and knows how and when to be combative.
Andy Birchfield, who as co-lead counsel for the federal Vioxx lawsuits has been working with Seeger and his team for nearly four years, said Seeger is an effective communicator, particularly strong on cross-examination.
“Chris is passionate about his work,” Birchfield said. “I think he has an excellent chance of winning.”
Still, Seeger has only once gotten a jury verdict in a pharmaceutical lawsuit, with the others all ending in settlements. That was a $2 million win in 2003 against Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drug maker, over its diabetes drug Rezulin, which was withdrawn over liver-related deaths. Pfizer previously had prevailed in many trials.
Manhattan defense lawyer Jay Mayesh, who opposed Seeger in the trial, called him “a very, very skilled trial lawyer” whose demeanor with jurors is “very honest, likable, credible.”
A New York City native, Seeger confesses he wasn’t a very good student in high school. The son of a union carpenter and a homemaker, he delayed going to college, continuing his amateur boxing career until 24 and amassing a 16-2 record. He worked as a carpenter and hit the bags in gritty Long Island towns at gyms like the Bayshore Athletic Club and the Brentwood Police Athletic League gym.
“He was pretty good,” recalled Seeger’s former trainer, Tony Fortunato, an ex-professional boxer who still trains young fighters on Long Island. “He practiced a lot.”
Fortunato said boxing helped keep Seeger out of trouble. Seeger said he didn’t plan boxing as a career, but it taught him the value of preparation and giving his best.
“It just changed my life, giving me confidence,” Seeger said. “It has disciplined me.”
Seeger said he always wanted to be a lawyer, like his older brother, Ken. He went back to school in his 20s, graduated from Hunter College in New York summa cum laude and then earned a law degree in 1990 from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where he was managing editor of the law review.
He started out at a “white-shoe” law firm that worked for major corporations, but disliked it and left in 1993 to work on his own. In 1999, he and best friend Stephen Weiss founded their firm, which specializes in class-action and other mass litigation.
Seeger recalled being skeptical when he was approached about taking a Vioxx case in summer 2001, knowing Merck had never faced a massive product liability suit before.
But talking with medical experts and researching the science around Vioxx convinced him the lawsuits were worth fighting, despite being difficult to win because heart attacks and strokes aren’t uncommon among older people, the bulk of Vioxx users.
“I’m one of the guys that keep these big companies in check,” he said.