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US judge may stay steroid litigation

Ruling awaited on consolidating a dozen lawsuits

A US District Court judge will probably determine Wednesday whether 12 Massachusetts lawsuits against the New England Compounding Center can proceed, as both sides await a decision from a federal judicial panel on where the cases ultimately will be heard.

Hundreds of cases of fungal meningitis have been linked to the drug compounding facility, and 30 people have died. Many of the patients who contracted fungal meningitis are expected to file lawsuits against the company, leading to the complicated legal battle over where those cases will be heard.

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The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation — a team of federal judges based in Washington, D.C., tasked with deciding whether many of these cases should be funneled to a single court or judge — will hold a hearing in late January to determine whether the federal cases should be consolidated. The decision will probably come in February.

In the meantime, lawyers for the plaintiffs want to begin gathering evidence for their cases, but lawyers for New England Compounding Center have asked for the cases to be stayed until the panel makes its decision.

“For this court to continue advancing discovery or proceedings would work at cross-purposes with those of the panel as it . . . considers whether to consolidate and transfer the cases to one venue,” wrote lawyers for the company in a Nov. 20 filing.

Lawyers for one of the individuals affected by the meningitis outbreak argued in a court document filed Tuesday that waiting until the judicial panel’s decision would prevent them from conducting time-sensitive investigations into any potential wrongdoing by the company. The decision would also prevent them from soliciting information on the circumstances of the company’s insurance.

At a court hearing last week, US District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV asked for details on the company’s insurance coverage. Lawyers for the company said they were still working on gathering that information.

Lawyers for the patients are anxious to know whether the drug compounding company has the funds to pay reparations or any court judgments awarded to people it may have infected with the deadly fungus.

“Defendants have limited assets,” wrote lawyers for one of the victims in a Nov. 15 filing. “Liability insurance, if available at all, is unlikely to be sufficient to satisfy the volume and magnitude of the claims in these cases.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, plaintiffs will ultimately seek to establish a class-action against the company.

Lawyers for New England Compounding favor consolidating the cases, which would save time and money for both sides by “streamlin[ing] the discovery process,” said Frederick H. Fern, a lawyer for the company. He’s hoping that the cases stay in US District Court in South Boston.

“A Boston venue is probably the best scenario,” Fern said. “That’s where the parties, witnesses, and documents are located, and where the acts subject to these complaints occurred.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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