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Judge meets endless Vioxx caseload head-on

Lawsuits number more than 4,300

ATLANTIC CITY -- For someone mired in judicial purgatory, Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee is remarkably upbeat.

She doesn't want pity -- many judges work as hard, she said. She doesn't want publicity -- it makes her uncomfortable, and she grants interview requests grudgingly.

She just wants justice -- and she's ready to dispense it, one Vioxx case at a time, even if it takes a lifetime.

And at the current rate, it could, assuming the cases are not settled or withdrawn.

Higbee, 55, is the New Jersey judge assigned to thousands of cases brought in state court against Merck & Co. over its now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.

The lawsuits -- all 4,333 of them -- blame the Whitehouse Station-based pharmaceutical company for heart attacks and strokes that users had.

Merck has acknowledged links between Vioxx and heart attacks and strokes in clinical studies, but only after 18 months' use.

If they all go to trial and take as long as a recent, seven-week case, Higbee would need 583 years to hear them all.

''I don't foresee that that's the way things will happen," she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. ''I'm going to be a judge for X many more years and during those years, I'll be trying cases. Maybe they're Vioxx cases, maybe they're others."

The way things are going, they'll be Vioxx cases. With 9,200 cases filed nationwide and former users still streaming into courthouses with new claims, the litigation shows no signs of slowing.

Merck & Co. has said it plans to fight the lawsuits, one by one. In New Jersey, the responsibility for trying them all falls to Higbee, a former medical malpractice attorney known for cutting through the cant without playing favorites.

Higbee said patience isn't one of her strong points. But she has shown plenty of it so far, refereeing battling lawyers in the recent trial -- which ended Nov. 3 with a Merck victory -- and meeting with lawyers for Merck and the plaintiffs to schedule the trials to come.

On Feb. 27, it's back to the courtroom for the next Vioxx trial. As in the first, Higbee will spend her days on the bench and her nights at home reviewing trial transcripts in preparation for the next day's session.

And when she isn't dealing with a Vioxx issue, she'll be tending to the 375 non-Vioxx cases on her docket.

''Vioxx is important. Every other piece of litigation I have is important. Even though it's more high-profile, it's not more important than any other case," Higbee said.

A native of Mishawaka, Ind., Higbee attended Temple University and its law school before spending 17 years in private practice, working as a plaintiffs attorney on behalf of victims of slip-and-falls, bad drugs, and negligent doctors. In 1993, she was appointed to the bench by James Florio, then governor of New Jersey.

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