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The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal Zostavax lawsuits has scheduled the first bellwether trial to begin in January 2022, which will help the parties gauge how juries may respond in nearly 2,000 similar claims filed over side effects of the shingles vaccine.
Zostavax was introduced in 2006 as the first shingles vaccine on the market in the United States, involving a single-dose injection that contained a live virus. However, plaintiffs allege the live virus was not sufficiently weakened, resulting in severe complications and injury among some users receiving the shingles vaccine.
Given similar questions of fact and law raised in complaints filed throughout the federal court system, all claims are currently centralized before U.S. District Judge Harry Bartle in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, as part of a federal multidistrict litigation (MDL).
As part of the coordinated proceedings, Judge Bartle has established a “bellwether” program, where a small group of representative claims are being prepared for early trial dates in the MDL, which are designed to help evaluate the strengths and weakness of each side’s position, and promote eventual settlement negotiations.
In a pretrial order (PDF) issued on June 30, Judge Bartle scheduled the first bellwether trial to begin on January 18, 2022. The specific case which will go before a jury on that date will be chosen from what is known as the “Group A Bellwether Pool”, which consists of six lawsuits selected by the parties.
The first Zostavax shingles vaccine trial was previously expected to begin in November 2021, but that schedule was vacated by this new pretrial order. The parties are expected to complete all depositions of expert witnesses in the Group A cases by September 3, and any motions to exclude specific testimony must be filed by September 17. A deadline of December 30, 2021 has been established for plaintiffs to file any motions in limine, with a January 7, 2022, deadline for defendants.
Each of the nearly 2,000 product liability lawsuits filed against Merck & Co. raise similar allegations, alleging that the drug maker withheld critical information about side effects of the Zostavax shingles vaccine, and failed to disclose evidence that users were experiencing severe and persistent outbreaks and other auto-immune problems after receiving the vaccine, such as meningitis, acute disseminated encephalopmyelitis (ADEM), paralysis and other health problems.
While the outcome of the bellwether trials will not be binding on other plaintiffs, it will be closely watched by parties involved in the litigation and are expected to greatly influence any eventual shingles vaccine settlements that the manufacturer may offer to individuals who experienced problems with Zostavax, which may be necessary to avoid the eventual need for hundreds of individual trial dates to be scheduled in U.S. District Courts nationwide in the coming years.