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US judge: Vioxx suits can't be merged

NEW ORLEANS -- Thousands of federal lawsuits claiming the drug Vioxx caused heart attacks and other conditions that killed or injured people cannot be pooled into one national class action, a judge ruled yesterday.

US District Judge Eldon Fallon, who was appointed to deal with pretrial matters for all federal suits involving Merck & Co.'s withdrawn painkiller, did not rule on the possibility of separate personal injury class-action suits for each state and the District of Columbia.

The judge's reasoning in the rest of the ruling appears to support Merck's view that the cases must be looked at individually, said Ted Mayer, outside counsel for the drug company.

Merck has won six cases, three each in federal and various state district courts. A fourth state court victory was overturned and a retrial ordered. The company has lost one federal case and three in state courts.

Fallon's 25-page ruling rejected the plaintiffs' proposal to try all the cases under the laws in New Jersey, where Merck is based. They argued that the company should reasonably expect to follow the laws of the state where it is headquartered.

"While this is true, it is just as true that Merck, an international corporation providing its drugs to every state in the nation, should expect to abide by every jurisdiction's laws," Fallon wrote.

The ruling came two days after Fallon rejected class-action claims brought by plaintiffs in England, South Africa, Poland, the Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada . He had made a similar ruling in August, against suits brought by people in France and Italy.

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