Federal Vioxx Trial to Start Nov. 28

The first federal trial over Merck & Co.'s (MRK) withdrawn painkiller Vioxx (search) is slated to begin here on Nov. 28 and concerns whether the drug caused the fatal heart attack of a 53-year-old Florida man.

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon decided on Wednesday to make the case involving Richard Irvin Jr. the first to go to trial. Fallon is handling all pretrial proceedings for federal cases. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the company.

Irvin's wife, Evelyn Irvin Plunkett, filed the suit against Merck after her husband died of a heart attack in May 2001, one month after he started taking Vioxx for back pain. Plunkett blames her husband's death on Vioxx, saying that he was in "very good health" when he started taking the painkiller.

"This is clearly a case we can show that Vioxx caused this man's heart attack," said Andy Birchfield, Plunkett's lawyer.

Officials with Merck did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. Vioxx was taken from the market last September after a study concluded it doubled patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes. The wrongful death and injury lawsuits against the company contend Merck hid Vioxx's risks.

The nation's first state Vioxx trial is already under way in state district court in Angleton, Texas. It centers on a 59-year-old man who died in his sleep from an irregular heartbeat in 2001.

Analysts have said the company's liability could be as high as $18 billion should verdicts go against Merck.

Verdicts in the first few dozen or so cases likely would help lawyers evaluate which of the remaining hundreds of cases are most favorable to each side. That could lead to a number of claims either being dropped or settled.