The potential postponement this week of the first trial against Merck over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx could be unfavorable for the US drugmaker, as plaintiffs’ attorneys push a stronger case.

An Alabama state judge is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow on whether to postpone the trial originally scheduled for May 23. Both Merck and the plaintiff asked for the postponement, after a federal judge requested it.

Judge Eldon Fallon of the US district court in New Orleans wants the delay as he considers and starts a consolidated evidentiary process for hundreds of Vioxx cases filed in federal court.

Meanwhile, another Vioxx trial is set to start in Texas on May 31. An attorney connected to that case is expected to discuss it with Judge Fallon.

Merck is the defendant in at least 2,400 lawsuits since it withdrew Vioxx in September. The drugmaker voluntarily pulled out the anti- inflammatory drug after a company study found it doubled risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months’ use.

Analysts estimate that Merck’s Vioxx liability could hit Dollars 5bn or more.

Merck has vowed to vigorously defend all cases. Winning the first few trials is seen as crucial for Merck.

The drugmaker increasingly views the Alabama case as weak. A widow blames Vioxx for causing the heart attack and death of her 42-year-old husband; but Merck says that Vioxx samples presented had not left its factory when Howard Bradley Rogers died.

On Friday, Judge John Rochester, in Clay County, Alabama circuit court, denied Merck’s request to dismiss the case, saying a jury should decide a witness’ credibility.

In his ruling, however, Judge Rochester said: “There are genuine issues of material fact which exist as to Howard Bradley Rogers’ ingestion of the drug Vioxx.”

But Jere Beasley, lawyer for the widow Cheryl Rogers, said the case remained strong. He said an autopsy proved the drug caused Mr. Rogers’ death.

He said he hoped any potential postponement tomorrow would not delay the case long and that it would remain the first Vioxx case to stand trial.

Mark Lanier, in Houston, is the lead attorney for the trial due in Texas state court on May 31. He represents the widow of Vioxx user Robert Ernst, 59, who died in 2001. Mr. Lanier was not available for comment.

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