updated 2/9/2006 7:53:59 AM ET 2006-02-09T12:53:59

A Texas attorney leading numerous Vioxx lawsuits is now representing a prominent cardiologist — who is also a major plaintiff witness — and wants him to become a paid consultant in the litigation, an attorney for drug maker Merck & Co. told a federal judge Wednesday.

Mark Lanier, the Houston lawyer who won a $253 million judgment against Merck last year, said The Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Eric J. Topol had retained him to work on private matters. Lanier would not discuss those issues, and Topol referred all questions to Lanier.

The issue arose Wednesday, according to Merck spokesman Kent Jarrell, in U.S. District Court in New Orleans when Merck attorney Phil Beck told the judge overseeing the federal lawsuits against Vioxx that Lanier was representing Topol in the doctor's departure from the Cleveland medical center. The hospital is widely known for its cardiac treatment and research programs.

Topol's deposition was recorded for the first federal trial in Houston, and was expected to be played again Thursday in the retrial under way in New Orleans before U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, who is overseeing all federal cases.

Vioxx was removed from the market in 2004 after a study showed that patients who took it for 18 months doubled their risk of heart attacks and strokes. The New Orleans trial is one of more than 9,600 state and federal lawsuits claiming that Vioxx caused heart attacks and that Merck concealed its dangers.

Jarrell said Beck told the judge "that Dr. Eric Topol is leaving The Cleveland Clinic according to Mark Lanier, and that Mark Lanier has announced that he is now Dr. Topol's personal lawyer over his departure from The Cleveland Clinic, and that Lanier indicates he is trying to get Topol to work for him as a consultant.

"We felt it was important information for the court to know, because it is expected the plaintiffs will play Dr. Topol's deposition in their case," Jarrell said.

A spokeswoman for The Cleveland Clinic had no immediate comment late Wednesday about whether Topol was leaving the clinic and said she would research the matter.

Topol, who joined the clinic in 1991, was one of the first scientists to raise doubts about the painkiller's safety. In December, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Topol had been demoted from his position as provost and chief academic officer. He is now chairman of the clinic's cardiovascular medicine department.

Lanier said he told the state judge presiding over Vioxx cases in New Jersey that Topol was now his client. Lanier said he met last Thursday with Judge Carol Higbee about using Topol's three-hour deposition in the trial scheduled Feb. 27.

In Houston, where the federal trial had been moved because of Hurricane Katrina, jurors deadlocked over whether Merck was responsible for the fatal heart attack suffered in 2001 by Richard "Dickie" Irvin.

In the deposition, Topol accused Merck of engaging in scientific misconduct, suppressing clinical evidence and stifling medical discourse as it promoted the painkiller. He first began calling in 2001 for study of whether patients taking Vioxx and similar drugs risked heart attacks and strokes.

The Texas state court judgment will be reduced to no more than $26.1 million because of caps on punitive damage awards.

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