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She's Ready to Dispense Justice in 4,333 Vioxx Suits

New Jersey Judge Carol Higbee isn't daunted by the mountain of cases over the Merck drug.

January 03, 2006|John Curran | Associated Press

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — For someone mired in judicial purgatory, Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee is remarkably upbeat.

She doesn't want pity -- many judges work as hard, she says. 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And at the current rate, it could, assuming the cases are not settled or withdrawn.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55, is the New Jersey judge assigned to thousands of cases brought in state court against Merck & Co. over its now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.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 pharmaceutical company for heart attacks and strokes suffered by users.

Merck, which is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has acknowledged links between Vioxx and heart attacks and strokes in clinical studies but only after 18 months of 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. "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 has said it plans to fight the lawsuits one by one. In New Jersey, the responsibility for trying them all falls to Higbee, a soft-spoken former medical malpractice attorney known for cutting through the cant without playing favorites.

Higbee says patience is not one of her strong points. But she has shown plenty of it, refereeing 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. 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.

Higbee, a native of Mishawaka, Ind., attended Temple University in Philadelphia and its law school. She went on to spend 17 years in private practice, working as a plaintiffs' attorney on behalf of alleged victims of slip-and-falls, bad drugs and negligent doctors. In 1993, she was appointed to the bench by then-New Jersey Gov. James Florio, a position that now pays $141,000 annually.

When it became clear that Vioxx litigation was going to tax New Jersey courts, the state Administrative Office of the Courts looked to Higbee.

"Judge Higbee was an obvious choice," spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said. "She's experienced, and she can manage the incredible workload that comes with some of these mass tort cases."

When she's off the bench, Higbee spends her time at home tending to her rosebushes and tomatoes, reading mystery novels and -- with her husband, a high school English teacher and part-time actor -- raising their 5-year-old granddaughter.

For now, though, her eyes are squarely on the mountain of work ahead of her.

Will the Vioxx caseload ever ease up?

"It depends on the participants," she said. "They can choose what they want to do. And what they want to do today may be different from what they want to do later. Litigation, it's just like the rest of life. You never know what's around the corner."

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