PHILADELPHIA -- Most of the 250 lawyers assembled in the Wyndham Philadelphia hotel ballroom listened intently yesterday as fellow attorney Barry Hill showed off an extensive collection of trinkets and product samples emblazoned with the logo of the now-withdrawn drug Vioxx.
"Maybe you can use them [the samples] as evidence," joked Hill, a Wheeling, W.Va., trial lawyer.
The remark elicited chuckles from an audience that has to be one of Vioxx manufacturer Merck & Co.'s worst nightmares: a roomful of litigators who are suing or plan to sue the drug maker that pulled the arthritis drug off the market last year after it was found to double patients' risk of heart attack and strokes.
Merck officials insist the company acted responsibly at all times and is well prepared for the litigation onslaught.
Still, with estimates of Merck's potential legal liability ranging from $4 billion to $30 billion, the strategies, decisions, and deals devised at meetings like this one will play a significant role in shaping Merck's future.
Indeed, such conferences have become an almost ritualized part of the product liability litigation industry. Discussion topics for the two-day meeting sponsored by Mealey Publications & Conferences Group include how to prepare witnesses, a review of the most relevant information found in clinical studies, and what role the Food and Drug Administration may play in the lawsuits.
The $895 registration fee paid by most attendees covers some meals, a conference handbook on a CD, and what Mealey describes as a "networking reception."
Merck would not comment on whether it sent a lawyer to the conference. But veterans of such gatherings say it's likely a lawyer for the company will attend -- a young attorney no one will recognize -- and take copious notes.
One lone speaker represented the defense point of view at the conference, which seemed like a plaintiff attorney pep rally.
James Tyrrell, a partner at Latham & Watkins who represents numerous chemical companies but has no connection to Merck, said he agreed to speak because hearing plaintiff strategies and ideas helps his cases.
"I want to know who their experts are, what universities are lining up with them, what organizations are conducting their studies," said Tyrell.