TRENTON, N.J. -- Raymond V. Gilmartin, the top executive at troubled pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., could testify as soon as March in some of the dozens of lawsuits filed in New Jersey over Merck's withdrawal of its blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx.
Scheduling for Gilmartin's pretrial depositions is still being finalized but they are expected to be held in March, said Ted Mayer, an attorney for Merck. He said two law firms were seeking to prevent or set limits on depositions by Gilmartin, Merck's chief executive, president, and chairman, and coordinate them with other litigation around the country.
However, state Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee on Dec. 16 ordered Gilmartin to answer questions from plaintiffs' attorneys about his knowledge of risks associated with Vioxx before Merck voluntarily pulled it from the market Sept. 30.
At the time, Merck said it was acting in patients' interests because a new, internal study showed the popular drug for arthritis and acute pain doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients who had used it for 18 months or more.
''We believe that when we get a chance to tell our story in court, it'll be clear that Merck did the right thing in terms of its study of the drug and the actions it took," Mayer said.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in cases filed in New Jersey did not immediately return phone messages left yesterday by the Associated Press.
Consumer activists have argued dangers associated with Vioxx were clear from earlier studies and that company officials downplayed the heart risks. About 2 million people were using Vioxx when it was withdrawn.
According to Merck, at least 475 Vioxx personal injury or product liability lawsuits have been filed, including 240 in New Jersey.
One suit seeks class-action status on behalf of Vioxx users allegedly injured or killed by the drug; dozens of others seek class-action status for consumers seeking refunds for medication costs, medical monitoring to detect any future harm from use of Vioxx or other remedies.
Individual lawsuits allege a range of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and kidney injuries, Mayer said. The suits filed in New Jersey state courts have been consolidated under Higbee, but none is likely to be the first Vioxx case to come to trial, Mayer said.
Vioxx had been Merck's number two drug, generating about $2.5 billion in annual sales, or 11 percent of company revenues, before Merck withdrew it.
The news slashed Merck's market capitalization by $28 billion on Sept. 30.