Merck & Co. opposes a plan by a New Jersey judge to limit upcoming cases over the painkiller Vioxx to those involving users who took the drug for 18 months or longer, an attorney for the drugmaker said on Friday.

Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, whose court is overseeing about half of the U.S. personal-injury suits involving Vioxx, will hold a hearing Thursday on the matter.

Higbee told lawyers involved in the litigation earlier this week that she wanted to focus the next few trials on longer-use plaintiffs, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

“We expect to be trying cases in that category (of Vioxx usage of 18 months or longer), but we also believe there are a lot of cases that don’t fit in that category,” said Ted Mayer, an outside attorney for Merck. “We want the court to deal with the whole mix of cases.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported Higbee’s plans in its Friday edition.

Merck withdrew Vioxx, a $2.5 billion-a-year seller, last year after its own clinical trial showed the drug increased risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months of use.

Last week, Merck was found not liable in a case brought by a 60-year-old postal worker who had taken the drug for two months. Analysts have said the company may have had an easier time defending itself because of the plaintiff’s relatively brief use of Vioxx.

In the first Vioxx trial, Merck was ordered in August to pay $253 million to a widow of a Texas man who took the drug for eight months before dying. Merck is appealing the verdict.

About 6,400 personal-injury cases involving Vioxx have been filed in the United States.

The New Jersey judge’s plan to next try the longer-use cases would be negative for Merck, said Jon LeCroy, an analyst with Natexis Bleichroeder.

“The early cases are important in determining the value per claimant,” LeCroy said. “If they’re only allowed to defend hard cases in the beginning, that makes it more difficult for them to produce a low settlement.”

“Merck right now is going to fight cases,” LeCroy said. “But obviously, if there’s thousands and thousands of cases, they’ll end up not being able to fight all of them. They will have to settle some of them.”

Merck has vowed to defend each Vioxx case it faces one by one.

Mayer said it was unknown how many of the cases involve people who took the drug for 18 months or more. Some people may have only taken the drug intermittently for 18 months, he said.



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