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The U.S. District Judge recently appointed to preside over all federal Zostavax shingles vaccine lawsuits has appointed a small group of plaintiffs’ lawyers to serve in various leadership positions during coordinated pretrial proceedings in the multidistrict litigation (MDL).
Merck & Co. has faced a growing number of product liability lawsuits throughout the federal court system in recent months, each raising similar allegations that the widely used Zostavax shingles vaccine actually caused individuals to suffer recurring and more severe shingles outbreaks.
Given similar questions of fact and law raised in the complaints, over whether the drug maker failed to sufficiently weaken the live virus in the vaccine, or warn consumers and the medical community about the risks associated with the shingles vaccine, all federal cases have been centralized before U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.
In an early pretrial order (PDF) issued September 20, Judge Bartle appointed a group of 11 Zostavax lawyers to positions where they will take actions that benefit all plaintiffs in the litigation; including two co-lead counsel, another two who will serve on a Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee, one to serve as liaison counsel, five that will join a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, and one appointed as liaison between state court and federal court litigation.
In complex medical device cases, where a large group of lawsuits present similar claims, it is common for the Court to appoint a group of lawyers to leadership roles to coordinate general discovery into common issues in the cases, argue motions before the court and take certain actions during the MDL proceedings that will benefit all plaintiffs. However, each individual plaintiff will still maintain their own attorney to handle case-specific issues and establish that their injuries were caused by the Zostavax shingles vaccine.
At the time the MDL was established in August, there were about 100 cases pending nationwide. However, as Zostavax lawyers review cases for individuals who suffered side effects from the shingles vaccine, it is widely expected that several thousand cases may be filed nationwide.
As part of the coordinated pretrial proceedings, it is expected that Judge Bartle will establish a bellwether process, where a small group of Zostavax cases will be prepared for early trial dates to help gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that is likely to be repeated throughout the litigation.
Following the coordinated MDL proceedings, if Zostavax settlements or another resolution for the litigation is not reached, each case may ultimately be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed for an individual trial date in the future.