Court-ordered settlement talks began Tuesday between lawyers for Merck & Co. and attorneys for a woman who blames her husband’s death on the company’s once-popular pain reliever Vioxx.

But after less than an hour of private discussions, the lawyers said no agreement was reached. More talks could be held, but Merck attorney Mike Brock said the company was standing by its policy “to litigate these cases one at a time.”

The talks got under way as Clay County Circuit Judge John Rochester considered whether to delay what would be the first U.S. trial of a wrongful death lawsuit over the medication. He said he would rule by the end of the week.

Rochester ordered the closed-door talks after the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical manufacturer and plaintiff’s lawyers both asked him to push back the trial date for Cheryl Rogers’ suit over the death of her 42-year-old husband, Brad.

The trial, now set for May 23, would be the first in the nation in a suit alleging Vioxx contributed to a death.

Jere Beasley, an attorney for Cheryl Rogers, told Rochester during a hearing that a delay was needed because his firm is poring over 5 million documents of evidence and needs time to take additional sworn testimony from potential witnesses.

“We think it’s crucial in every case we’re handling, not just in this case in this county,” said Beasley, who said his firm has been contacted by thousands of people with potential claims over Vioxx.

Merck lawyer Mike Brock said a delay would help the company coordinate its defense of multiple lawsuits including a large number of federal cases that have been consolidated before U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon in New Orleans.

“If your honor says we’re going to trial on May 23 we’ll be here and be ready, but it’s going to be a strain,” Brock said.

Rochester said he wanted to talk with Fallon and other state judges handling Vioxx lawsuits before deciding whether to postpone the Alabama case, filed in 2003 in Clay County in rural east Alabama. Rochester said there was little point in delaying Rogers’ case if other trials are held as scheduled, beginning with a case set for May 31 in Texas.

Plus, Rochester said, state budget problems in Alabama might prevent the case from being heard for months if administrators in Montgomery order a halt to jury trials, as has happened in the past.

“I cannot promise you there will be a civil jury trial in ‘06,” Rochester said.

Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last year amid concerns over health risks, and Rogers blames the painkiller for her husband’s death in 2001.

The company denies Vioxx killed Rogers. It says that drug samples turned over by his widow as evidence weren’t even shipped from the factory until six months after he died.

Beasley, a former Alabama lieutenant governor known for winning large civil verdicts against out-of-state companies in lawsuits filed in rural counties, said verdicts over Vioxx could reach seven-digit figures.

Merck has said it intends to try every lawsuit over Vioxx on a case-by-case basis.

An estimated 20 million Americans have taken Vioxx at one time or another.

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