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A multibillion dollar case between two giant pharmaceutical companies grappling over arcane antitrust issues has unexpectedly turned into a gay rights legal imbroglio that raises questions over whether lawyers can bounce potential jurors solely based on their sexual orientation.

The case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday centers on whether Abbott Laboratories broke antitrust laws when it increased the price of its popular and vital AIDS drug Norvir by 400 percent in 2007. But broader public attention likely will be given to the three-judge panel's look at whether Abbott wrongfully removed a juror in the case brought by competitor SmithKlineBeecham. The court is expected to take up the issue sometime after 10 a.m. local time Wednesday.

The cost increase angered many in the gay community. SmithKlineBeecham, meanwhile, claims it was meant to harm the launch of its new AIDS treatment, which requires the use of Norvir. And the company contends "Juror B" was removed simply because he was gay.

"It's a big deal," said Vik Amar, University of California, Davis professor. "The headlines from this case are not

Before trials, lawyers for both sides are allowed to use several "preemptory challenges" each to remove someone from the jury pool without legal justification.

For its part, Abbott argued, it bounced "Juror B" for three reasons, none having anything to do with his sexual orientation. Lawyers said they felt the juror's impartiality was compromised because he was the only potential juror who had heard of the SmithKline treatment in question, that he was also the only prospective juror who had lost a friend to AIDS and that he worked for courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 prohibited lawyers from using their challenges to bounce a potential juror from a case because of race.


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