The top executive at troubled pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. (MRK), Raymond V. Gilmartin (search), may testify by March in some of the dozens of lawsuits filed in New Jersey over Merck's withdrawal of its blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx, a lawyer for the company said Tuesday.

Scheduling for Gilmartin's pretrial depositions is still being finalized but is expected to be held in March, said Ted Mayer, an attorney for Merck. He said two law firms are seeking to prevent or set limits on depositions by Gilmartin, Merck's CEO and chairman, and coordinate them with other litigation around the country.

However, state Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee issued a verbal order Dec. 16 requiring Gilmartin to answer questions from plaintiffs' attorneys about his knowledge of risks associated with Vioxx (search) before Merck voluntarily pulled it from the market in September.

At the time, Merck said it was acting in patients' interests because a new, internal study showed the popular drug for arthritis and acute pain doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients who had used it for 18 months or more.

Consumer activists have argued dangers associated with Vioxx were clear from earlier studies and that company officials downplayed the heart risks. About 2 million people were using Vioxx when it was withdrawn.

According to Merck, at least 475 Vioxx personal injury or product liability lawsuits have been filed, including 240 suits in New Jersey.

Vioxx had been Merck's No. 2 drug, generating about $2.5 billion in annual sales, or 11 percent of company revenues, before the withdrawal. The news slashed Merck's market capitalization by $28 billion on Sept. 30.