Wheeling attorney sues former partners over Vioxx fees

By Chris Dickerson | Sep 17, 2009



WHEELING – A Wheeling attorney is suing her former law partners, claiming they denied her a fair share of fees from 563 lawsuits over Vioxx pain medicine.

Teresa Toriseva filed suit against former partners Barry Hill and Mary Williams in Ohio Circuit Court on Sept. 16, seeking a declaration that would entitle her to a portion of fees from a national settlement of Vioxx claims.

Her lawyer, Avrum Levicoff of Pittsburgh, didn't specify the size of her claim but asked the court to determine it.

Toriseva practiced with Hill and Williams starting in 2002 in a firm they called Hill, Toriseva and Williams.

In 2004, drug maker Merck recalled Vioxx after a clinical trial indicated that prolonged use created a risk of heart attack and stroke.

According to Levicoff, Toriseva agreed with Hill and Williams that she would develop special expertise in Vioxx. They agreed she would participate in national seminars and publicize the firm's expertise in Vioxx, Levicoff wrote.

They also agreed she would design a process for screening calls from referring attorneys and potential plaintiffs, he wrote in the complaint. They agreed that she would devote substantially all her practice to Vioxx.

The firm entered into cooperative agreements with Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Deitzler of Charleston; Clark, Perdue, Arnold and Scott of Columbus, Ohio; and Anapol, Schwartz of Philadelphia, he wrote.

The four firms agreed on joint representation of any plaintiff who retained any of the firms, he wrote, and they agreed to share fees equally.

Nationwide, lawyers filed about 26,000 suits for about 47,000 plaintiffs. Another 15,000 persons asserted claims but refrained from suing after Merck agreed to toll the statute of limitations.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi District Litigation consolidated federal Vioxx suits and assigned them to District Judge Eldon Fallon of New Orleans.

Hill, Toriseva and Williams filed 563 suits by February 2006, according to Levicoff.

Then, he wrote, Hill "suddenly, inexplicably, unprofessionally and without cause or provocation excluded the plaintiff from the office and foreclosed her from the practice."

Hill changed the firm's name to Hill, Williams.

Vioxx litigation soon tilted in Merck's favor. In six federal trials, four juries cleared Merck, one jury held Merck liable, and one jury couldn't decide.

In 2007, Merck agreed with plaintiff negotiators to settle heart attack and stroke claims for $4.85 billion, which equalled about $80,000 per plaintiff.

To qualify for payment, a plaintiff would enroll in a settlement program. Any lawyer enrolling a single Vioxx client would have to enroll all Vioxx clients.

In 2008, Fallon approved a contingency fee for plaintiff lawyers up to 32 percent of each payment from the settlement.

He divided the fee, directing 24 percent to lawyers who filed the suit and 8 percent to those who led the national litigation for the common benefit of all.

Toriseva believes each 24 percent payment should include something for her.

"Plaintiff asserts that she is entitled to a substantial portion of those attorneys' fees, not only because she was a member of Hill, Toriseva, and Williams when the contingent fee agreements were entered into, and the lawsuits were filed, but more substantially, because her particular services were of unique value in securing and generating the attorneys' fees in question," Levicoff wrote.

The end of the firm of Hill, Toriseva and Williams briefly disturbed national liigation over Digitek heart medicine at federal court in Charleston last year.

Louisana attorney Danny Becnel relied on Hill's version of events to attack her character in an objection to her appointment to a plaintiff steering committee. District Judge Joseph Goodwin ignored Becnel and appointed Toriseva.

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