27 December 2005

Vioxx litigation

By JOHN CURRAN Associated Press Writer
December 26,2005 | ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- For someone mired in judicial purgatory, Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee is remarkably upbeat. She doesn't want pity -- many judges work as hard, she says. She doesn't want publicity -- it makes her uncomfortable, and she grants interview requests grudgingly. She just wants justice -- and she's ready to dispense it, one Vioxx case at a time, even if it takes a lifetime.

And at the current rate, it could, assuming the cases are not settled or withdrawn.

Higbee, 55, is the New Jersey judge assigned to thousands of cases brought in state court against Merck & Co. over its now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx. The lawsuits -- all 4,333 of them -- blame the Whitehouse Station-based pharmaceutical company for heart attacks and strokes suffered by users.

Merck has acknowledged links between Vioxx and heart attacks and strokes in clinical studies, but only after 18 months' use.

If they all go to trial and take as long as a recent, seven-week case, Higbee would need 583 years to hear them all.

"I don't foresee that that's the way things will happen," she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I'm going to be a judge for X many more years and during those years, I'll be trying cases. Maybe they're Vioxx cases, maybe they're others."

The way things are going, they'll be Vioxx cases. With 9,200 cases filed nationwide and former users still streaming into courthouses with new claims, the litigation shows no signs of slowing.

Merck & Co. has said it plans to fight the lawsuits, one by one. In New Jersey, the responsibility for trying them all falls to Higbee, a soft-spoken former medical malpractice attorney known for cutting through the cant without playing favorites.

Higbee says patience isn't one of her strong points. But she has shown plenty of it so far, refereeing battling lawyers in the recent trial -- which ended Nov. 3 with a Merck victory -- and meeting with lawyers for Merck and the plaintiffs to schedule the trials to come.

On Feb. 27, it's back to the courtroom for the next Vioxx trial. As in the first, Higbee will spend her days on the bench and her nights at home reviewing trial transcripts in preparation for the next day's session. And when she isn't dealing with a Vioxx issue, she'll be tending to the 375 non-Vioxx cases on her docket.

"Vioxx is important. Every other piece of litigation I have is important. Even though it's more high-profile, it's not more important than any other case," Higbee said.

A native of Mishawaka, Ind., Higbee attended Temple University and its law school before spending 17 years in private practice, working as a plaintiffs attorney on behalf of victims of slip-and-falls, bad drugs and negligent doctors. In 1993, she was appointed to the bench by then-New Jersey Gov. James Florio, a position that now pays $141,000 annually.

When it became clear that Vioxx litigation was going to tax New Jersey courts, the state Administrative Office of the Courts looked to Higbee.

"Judge Higbee was an obvious choice," spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said. "She's experienced and she can manage the incredible workload that comes with some of these mass tort cases."

When she's off the bench, Higbee spends her time at home tending to her rose bushes and tomatoes, reading mystery novels and -- with her husband, a high school English teacher and part-time actor -- raising their 5-year-old granddaughter.

For now, though, her eyes are squarely on the mountain of work ahead of her.

Will the Vioxx workload ever ease up?

"It depends on the participants," she said. "They can choose what they want to do. And what they want to do today may be different from what they want to do later. Litigation, it's just like the rest of life. You never know what's around the corner."
© 2005 The Associated Press. Link

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