NEW ORLEANS – The first of what could be many federal trials concerning Merck’s withdrawn painkiller Vioxx will deal with the fatal heart attack of a 53-year-old Florida man.

The trial will start on Nov. 28 in New Orleans. U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon decided Wednesday to make the case involving Richard h i n Jr. the first to go to trial. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the company.

Irvin’s wife, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, filed the suit against Merck after her husband died of a heart attack in May 200 1, one month after he started taking Vioxx for back pain. Plunkett blames her husband’s death on Vioxx, saying he was in “very good health” when he started taking the painkiller.

“This is clearly a case we can show that Vioxx caused this man’s heart attack,” said Andy Birchfield, Plunkett’s attorney.

Attorneys for Merck said in a statement that the company “acted responsibly every step of the way.” The company points out it tested the medicine in clinical studies that involved about 10,000 patients.

The company said the study that led to the painkiller’s withdrawal said a person could have cardiovascular problems only after 18 months of continuous use of Vioxx. Irvin used it for one month.

The nation’s first Vioxx trial in any jurisdiction is already under way in state district court in Angleton, Texas. It centers on a 59-year-old man who died in his sleep from an irregular heartbeat in 2001.

Many of the federal lawsuits include similar claims of injury or death from using Vioxx, a drug that was prescribed for treatment of arthritis. Analysts have said the company’s liability could be as high as $1 8 billion should verdicts go against Merck.

Verdicts in the first few dozen or so cases likely would help lawyers evaluate which of the remaining hundreds of cases are most favorable to each side. That could lead to a number of claims either being dropped or settled.

Vioxx was taken from the market in September after a study concluded it doubled patients’ risk of heart attacks and strokes. The wrongful death and injury lawsuits against the company contend Merck hid Vioxx’s risks.

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