The first scheduled trial of a wrongful death suit against Merck & Co. over its painkiller Vioxx was postponed Friday by an Alabama judge to avoid conflicts with federal litigation.

Circuit Judge John Rochester said he decided to push back the trial – initially set for May 23 – after conferring with other judges who are presiding over Vioxx cases.

U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon had asked that the case be postponed so it wouldn’t interfere with federal litigation. Fallon, who is based in New Orleans, is overseeing all the federal Vioxx cases at this stage.

Last week, Rochester rejected Merck’s motion that the Alabama state court suit be dismissed and put attorneys for both sides into private talks over a possible settlement. But no agreement was reached in the suit brought by Cheryl Rogers, an Alabama woman who blames her husband’s death on the company’s once-popular pain reliever.

Rogers’ attorney Jere Beasley said the delay would give his firm more time to investigate and establish more evidence against Merck. “Eventually, they’ll have to face us.”

Merck attorney Mike Brock, in a statement Friday, said delaying the state trial and focusing on federal litigation will “avoid duplication and inconsistencies in the judicial process.”

Rochester did not indicate in his order when a new trial date may be set.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., pulled Vioxx off the market last September after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients taking the drug for more than 18 months. So far, more than 2.400 lawsuits have been filed involving Vioxx. Earlier this year, Fallon was selected to handle all pretrial proceedings such as gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses in the federal cases. The cases will be returned to their original jurisdictions after the pretrial proceedings.

There are 477 cases in the multi-district federal litigation and another 383 are being moved to Fallon’s court.

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