By Snigdha Prakash, an investigative journalist and former NPR reporter. Prakash received the Fund for Investigative Journalism's Gene Roberts Book Award for All the Justice Money Can Buy: Corporate Greed on Trial, her first book.
A few years ago I found myself in the journalistic equivalent of hog heaven — behind closed doors I had never expected to penetrate — watching from a ring-side seat as plaintiffs’ lawyers took on the drug giant, Merck, in a products liability trial involving Merck’s popular painkiller, Vioxx.
Merck had withdrawn Vioxx in September 2004, citing new data showing an increased risk of heart attacks on Vioxx. Some 20 million Americans had used Vioxx over its five-and-a-half year market life, and scientists would implicate it in up to 54,000 deaths. By the end of 2006, Merck faced 27,000 products liability cases. But Merck’s lawyers insisted the company would never settle with the plaintiffs; rather it would defend every case in court. It was a hollow threat. As is usual with mass torts, the cases had been consolidated under a federal multi-district litigation (MDL) judge and a few state mass tort judges, and the judges were unlikely to countenance Merck’s foot-dragging indefinitely. Fifteen cases had already gone to trial by this point (I had covered some of them as a reporter for NPR), and Merck had won most.
Two more cases were set to be tried in New Jersey state court in January 2007. Mark Lanier, the Texan trial lawyer who had twice beaten Merck, would lead the plaintiffs’ legal team, and I arranged to be embedded with his lawyers and observe the trial up close. For seven weeks I shadowed Lanier and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers, sitting in on early-morning strategy sessions in Lanier’s hotel room, riding to court in his rental SUV and squeezing into the stuffy, bare-bones plaintiffs’ war room in the Atlantic County Civil Courthouse during breaks in testimony. I took notes, I asked questions. Eventually, I wrote a book about the experience, All the Justice Money Can Buy: Corporate Greed on Trial.