By Linda A. Johnson of the Associate Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP)- Coordination of hundred of federal lawsuits over Merck & Co.’s withdrawn painkiller Vioxx is being moved to Houston from New Orleans, at least temporarily, because of the devastation there from Hurricane Katrina.

The judge overseeing the massive litigation, U.S. District Court Judge Eldon E. Fallon, and a handful of his staff members have already moved into temporary quarters in the federal courthouse in Houston, a law clerk for Fallon told the Associated Press late Tuesday.

The clerk, who did not want her names used, said the judge is trying to keep as close as possible to the case schedule he had set last month, which had the first federal trial starting in New Orleans on Nov. 28. It was still unclear where the trails will be heard, the clerk said.

Fallon is handling pretrial coordination of more than 1,800 federal Vioxx lawsuits alleging the drug caused patients heart attacks and other harm. Such pretrial consolation is done to streamline steps common to the cases, such as document gathering and witness depositions.

David Bradley, chief deputy, chief deputy clerk for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, said his courthouse will take over electronic management of case filings on a national court system server, entering pleadings and other filings by attorneys, as well as filing of new lawsuits.

“If you have failure locally, they you can o to this national server,” which has copies of all filing made electronically at individual federal courthouses around the country, Bradley said.

Whitehouse Station-based Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last September when research showed the arthritis drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use. Besides the federal cases, the company faces about 3,4200 state and other lawsuits over Vioxx, a blockbuster arthritis drug that had peak sales of $2.5 billion a year.

Last month, a jury in Angleton, Texas, hit Merck with a $253.4 million verdict–an amount expected to be drastically reduced– in the first Vioxx trial in state court. The second state trial is set to begin Sept. 12 in Atlantic City, about 100 miles from Merck’s headquarters.

“It hurts our chances in later trials,” explained Merck spokesman Kent Jerrell.

Meanwhile, Fallons clerk said staff now in Houston are trying to locate other New Orleans staffers and find places for them to work, in Houston or elsewhere.

“We certainly understand and have a great deal of empathy for the unusual personal and logistical challenges facing the court,” Jerrell said late Tuesday. “We have confidence in the judge and will help him in any way because it is very important to keep the (federal trials) moving forward.

Andy Birchfield, co-lead councel for plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits, said he is very pleased Fallon is safe and able to keep the federal litigation “moving at the rapid pace it has been.”

Bradley said the Houston courthouse has some available space for Fallon and staff, but the judge legally cannot hold trials there– at least not now.

“There is no statutory authority for Judge Fallon to conduct his trials here,” Bradley explained.

He said Congress is considering legislation to allow federal judges in Louisiana’s eastern district to conduct trials elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Bradley said, about 65 staffers from the New Orleans headquarters of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, are to be moved to the Houston federal courthouse.

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