[JURIST] The US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] began pre-trial hearings [Pretrail Order #1, PDF] Friday, launching the federal liability case against Merck & Co. [official website], producers of the painkilling product Vioxx [Vioxx consumer information]. Dozens of lawyers, handling over one thousand lawsuits, entered the courtroom before Judge Eldon E. Fallon [official profile], who was assigned last month to coordinate procedural pre-trial motions and discovery. Though the individual trials will be heard in the original federal jurisdictions, Merck earlier requested that pretrial motions be placed under one judge to ease costs of coordinating lawsuits filed around the county. Vioxx was removed from the market last year after a study revealed that it placed users at greater risks for stroke and heart attack [CBC News report]. Some drug industry analysts speculate that Merck's potential liability may reach $30 billion. The first trials will begin within 12 to 18 months. Read Merck's statement on pre-trial consolidation here. AP has more.