February 21, 2006
When a Vioxx federal court case came to New Orleans, law professor Edward Sherman and his students attended a pre-trial hearing and met the judge who is handling the landmark cases.
It's not called "complex litigation" for nothing. Recently, members of law professor Edward Sherman's advanced civil procedure class in "Complex Litigation" came face to face with one of the biggest product liability cases of our time.
"This is tough stuff and they are learning," said Sherman of his students, who sat through a pretrial hearing pertaining to the thousands of lawsuits filed against the manufacturer of Vioxx, a pain reliever that was withdrawn from the market following allegations of serious health complications arising from use of the drug.
More than 10,000 suits have been filed against the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. with potential damages estimated as high as $30 billion. A federal judicial panel transferred more than 4,000 Vioxx cases filed in federal courts around the country to Judge Eldon Fallon of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. He will oversee preparation of the cases for trial and explore the possibility of settlement.
At the pretrial hearing, Fallon heard motions to dismiss a nationwide class action proposed by the plaintiffs. The hearing was but one legal proceeding in what has already been an almost yearlong effort to sort through the myriad issues involved.
Fallon, who received his undergraduate degree from Tulane in 1960 and his law degree from Tulane Law School in 1963, met with the students after the hearing, answering their questions and explaining legal aspects of the proceeding, said Sherman.
"The fact that the multidistrict panel of judges has transferred all these federal Vioxx cases to Judge Fallon is a tribute to his reputation for expertise in handling difficult complex litigation," said Sherman. A number of Tulane law alums are among the hundreds of lawyers involved in these cases, some of them appointed to serve on the important steering committees representing each side.
"Sending the Vioxx cases here is also is a comment on the vitality of New Orleans as a legal center and on the quality of lawyers who practice here," said Sherman.
On Feb. 17, the second in a handful of individual "bellwether" trials was decided in favor of Vioxx in Fallon's court. This and other trials will serve as indicators of the salient legal issues and "give guidance to the parties as to how a jury will react," said Sherman. The first case, which was held in December in Houston due to the temporary post-Hurricane Katrina closure of New Orleans courts, ended in a mistrial.
Fallon is expected to hold several more individual trials in hopes they will provide the parties with information that could result in a global settlement. If settlement is not achieved, the cases will be returned to the federal courts where they were originally filed to be tried individually.