Within the next few days, attorneys for both sides in the Vioxx litigation will sift through the hundreds of suits against Merck & Co. so a federal judge in New Orleans can choose which will be the first to go to trial.

Besides taking care of some of the cases involving the painkiller, which Merck withdrew from the market on Sept. 30, these trials will be instructive because they will show how jurors react to the arguments they will hear, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon said Thursday at a monthly status conference on the litigation.

“This will give us information about all the cases,” said Philip Wittmann, spokesman for the defense attorneys. “He wants us to try cases so we can learn something.”

Wittmann said 907 federal Vioxx cases are in New Orleans and about 700 others are en route. Although they were filed nationwide, these petitions are before Fallon because he is coordinating such elements of pretrial work as gathering evidence and taking depositions. Once this phase is complete, the suits are to return to the districts where they were filed, although trials could be held in New Orleans.

At last month’s status conference, Fallon said trials may start by the end of the year. Estimates of total potential damages have ranged as high as $30 billion.

Another batch of about 2,200 suits are in state courts, Wittmann said.

Vioxx, which was an extremely popular arthritis treatment, has been blamed for a host of health problems, including fatal heart attacks and cardiovascular ailments.

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