Whether Merck & Co. wins a slew of federal lawsuits or Vioxx patients who died or suffered injuries are compensated may come down to which judge hears the case and in what state.

Dozens of lawyers from throughout the country met at the U.S. District Courthouse in Fort Myers on Thursday to outline a plan for consolidating hundreds of existing federal suits against the arthritis drug manufacturer. A panel of seven federal judges will decide whether to consolidate cases like these from across the country, and where they all should be tried.

“They (cases) just keep coming in,” said Orlando lawyer Alex Gillen, whose firm represents Vioxx patients. “Merck is pushing very hard for Maryland. I guess they find the law favorable there. And New Jersey.”

Staff with the panel’s clerk’s office said the ruling may not be issued for two to three weeks. Two local suits are pending in federal court.

Merck pulled Vioxx off the market Sept. 30, 2004, after new information from a clinical trial found an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and other heart-related complications after patients had taken the drug for 18 months. The three-year study, halted early, was designed to show that the arthritis drug, taken at a 25-milligram dose, prevented the re-emergence of colon and rectal polyps as well as offering its original pain relief.

The lawsuits, some of which are class-action suits, contend Merck knew Vioxx could cause strokes and heart attacks but ignored research studies reporting these findings while the drug was on a fast-track for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in May 1999 and after.

About 150 lawyers packed a sixth-floor courtroom at the federal courthouse Thursday, cramming into a room that court security said is designed for 54 people. Lawyers spilled out of the courtroom, into a witness waiting room and sprawled down the hall. Some left the courtroom early, visibly sweating and loosening their ties.

Lawyers representing Merck said they want the cases, and interviews with every patient and witness, to be tried in federal court in either New Jersey, Maryland, southern Indiana or Chicago. Merck attorney Norman C. Kleinberg said these districts can handle a consolidated case this large and complicated. It may be more economical, but they also must choose a location large enough to accomodate everyone.

Some lawyers for the patients said they’d prefer Louisiana or Texas because they feel their clients might have a better chance of winning there.

Lawyers for Merck asked the panel to consolidate these cases into one district because it not only cuts down on the number of trials in each state, but also may speed up and simplify the road to resolution, especially if assigned to a judge unwilling to let cases lag.

But consolidating the federal Vioxx suits nationwide could delay some cases that haven’t gone to trial or been settled while fast-tracking fresh ones, Houston lawyer Carlene Lewis said.

“This may bring to a halt some of the older cases,” she said.

Louisiana lawyer Daniel Becnel Jr. said he is handling 2,000 Vioxx lawsuits for people whose family members have died from the drug, or for patients who suffered kidney failure, strokes, pulmonary embolisms and deep-vein thrombosis. American clients, as well as those from France, Italy, every country in South America, Canada and Mexico, bring in “20 to 50 (new) cases a day,” he said.

Alabama lawyer Andy Birchfield said he’s handling more than 100 cases and reviewing 20,000 potential cases.

Lawsuits against the company also have been filed in state courts throughout the country, including Lee and Collier counties. Two federal suits are expected to go to trial in May in Texas, as well as one case in state court there. One case in state court in Alabama has a May trial date, and five state court cases in California are set for trial in July.

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