Key players in the second Vioxx product liability trial against pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.:
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Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee
A graduate of Temple University's law school, Higbee passed the New Jersey bar in 1976 and joined the Targan law firm in Atlantic City, where she represented medical malpractice and personal injury plaintiffs, becoming a partner in 1981. In 1993, the Indiana native was appointed a New Jersey Superior Court judge, assigned to the civil division in Atlantic City. In 2003, as Vioxx lawsuits filed in New Jersey mounted, the state Supreme Court consolidated them under Higbee, who already had some Vioxx cases, had expertise in mass litigation and had presided over a number of personal injury trials, one with a $3.5 million award to a plaintiff.
Higbee, 55, ranked No. 160 among 366 judges rated by the New Jersey Law Journal this year. Besides the Vioxx cases, she has been assigned mass litigation in involving the acne treatment Accutane and hormone replacement drugs for menopausal women, with about 180 cases for each drug on her docket. Currently, Higbee is overseeing about 3,500 Vioxx product liability lawsuits -- roughly half of all suits filed in the country -- so lawyers have been watching her rulings closely. In July, she ruled that health plans that paid for members' Vioxx prescriptions can proceed with a class action lawsuit to recover billions they spent on the recalled painkiller -- possibly triple damages. In this case, Higbee has rejected a half-dozen Merck motions for a mistrial and issued other rulings against the drug company.
The Plaintiff: Frederick "Mike" Humeston
A postal inspector in Boise, Idaho, and father of five grown children, 60-year-old Humeston earned two Purple Hearts while a Marine during the Vietnam War. Lingering pain from a shrapnel wound to his left knee was the reason his doctor switched him to the anti-inflammatory medicine Vioxx. Humeston said he had taken the drug intermittently for about two months when he suffered a heart attack on Sept. 18, 2001. His doctors and expert witnesses say Vioxx caused a buildup of arterial plaque that broke off and caused the heart attack, and that Merck knew about those risks but failed to warn the public.
Humeston's primary lawyers:
- Christopher A. Seeger, founding partner of Seeger Weiss, with offices in New York City and Newark, N.J., specializes in class-action and other mass litigation. A 1993 graduate of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, in June Seeger and other lawyers won a $690 million settlement from Eli Lilly & Co. for patients who claimed they developed diabetes or gained weight while taking the psychiatric drug Zyprexa. In 2003, he garnered a $2 million verdict against Pfizer Inc. over its diabetes drug Rezulin, which was withdrawn coordinating thousands of federal Vioxx lawsuits. The former amateur boxer has an affable manner, urging medical witnesses to explain their testimony in layman's terms.
- David R. Buchanan, also a partner at Seeger Weiss, also earned his law degree from Cardozo in 1993. He worked in commercial law for a Wall Street firm before joining Seeger Weiss in 1999, where he now often represents aggrieved investors.
Merck & Co. primary lawyers:
- Diane P. Sullivan, a 1987 graduate of University of Pennsylvania, is a partner in the mass torts and product liability group of Princeton, N.J.-based law firm Dechert. She has tried cases for corporate clients in New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas and California. In this case, Judge Higbee has chastised Sullivan for making disparaging comments about lawyers, calling Seeger names and trying to introduce evidence not revealed in pretrial discovery. One dispute devolved into a shouting match on Oct. 7, when Higbee -- with the jury out of the room -- uncharacteristically yelled at Sullivan to "sit down and be quiet" or be removed from the courtroom.
- Stephen D. Raber, a partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington and a 1985 graduate of University of Virginia, is a specialist in a practice that focuses on trial work and civil litigation. A combative advocate for Merck, Higbee chided him for being overly loud and argumentative with a witness, staring and glaring so much that she instructed jurors to "disregard Raber's facial expressions."
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