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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 9, 2005

Houston lawyer taking the pulpit in Merck case

By Kristen Hays
Associated Press

Houston attorney Mark Lanier, known for his rapport with juries, can simplify complex issues into his stark visions of right and wrong.

Pat Sullivan | Associated Press


HOUSTON — Mark Lanier doesn't need a church to have a pulpit.

The 44-year-old Houston litigator once intended to be a preacher, earning a seminary degree after honing his oratory skills before a congregation of 1,000 at his hometown church in West Texas.

But the law beckoned and he found his lucrative niche — preaching to a "congregation" of 12 in small-town Texas courtrooms with a bruising mix of flash, charm and righteousness.

Soon, Lanier will capture national attention when he takes on pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. in the first U.S. case involving an alleged Vioxx-related death to go to trial since the company pulled the popular painkiller from the market last year.

This week, the Texas judge presiding over the case declined Merck's request to postpone the trial for two months because of pretrial publicity, saying he didn't want to assume that the pool of 100 jurors had been tainted. That pool is to fill out questionnaires Monday as scheduled, and lawyers will gauge any bias as the jury selection process plays out. Also Monday, lawyers will continue hashing out what expert testimony will be presented.

"I don't guarantee wins. I've tried too many cases for that," Lanier said in his Western-themed office on the outskirts of Houston. "I do guarantee a good time."

Lanier is known for his rapport with juries and his ability to simplify complicated issues into his stark visions of right and wrong.

"He is one of the rare voices of his generation absolutely committed to trial by jury and he is extraordinary," said David Berg, a Houston civil litigator who has worked with Lanier.

The son of a railroad company salesman in Lubbock, Lanier eschews liquor, smoking and cursing, instead peppering his speech with "bloomin"' and "dad-gum." The only giveaway to the age of the married father of five are specks of gray in his beard stubble, which he shaves for court.

Behind his youthful looks and affable nature lurks a skill to demonize companies and mock CEOs with wide-eyed indignation.

His plan for Merck is no different. The company voluntarily took Vioxx off the market when a clinical trial showed that patients who took it for 18 months or more could double their risk of heart attack or stroke. Lanier plans to argue that the move was too little, too late.

He also plans to show a videotaped deposition of former Merck CEO Ray Gilmartin during which Lanier questioned Merck's reaction to a study where six people taking Vioxx had so-called heart events compared to one of 100 taking a placebo.

Lanier recounts how Gilmartin said there was no real difference between one and six. Lanier slapped a dollar bill on the table and asked for six back. The CEO answered that he didn't have six dollars. "I'll take a check" was Lanier's rejoinder.

He said he intends to play the video for the jury.

Lanier reveals his trial strategy as a means of scaring companies into settlements, said Robert Thackston, a Dallas lawyer who represented DaimlerChrysler and opposed Lanier in an asbestos case two years ago that was settled a few days into trial.

Merck's legal team should keep jurors "focused on the real evidence in the case and away from his hyperbole and melodrama —the yarn that Mark will spin about corporate evildoers," said Thackston.

Lanier graduated from the Texas Tech School of Law and has been generous to his alma mater, giving the law school $6 million last year.

He began his career in 1984 with Fulbright & Jaworski, the same firm he will face in the Vioxx trial. He said he left because he identified more with plaintiffs, and in 1990 he founded his Lanier Law Firm.

For his first big case, he enlisted help from noted Houston lawyer John O'Quinn in a breach-of-contract battle with Amoco Corp. They won a $417 million verdict, which fell to $50 million at settlement.

Lanier later scored on his own against Amoco with a $115 million verdict for 21 steelworkers in an asbestos case. Other wins include last year's $100 million settlement from hospital supplier Becton Dickinson in an antitrust case.

Last October he lost when he represented Kelly-Moore Paint Co. Inc. in an unusual asbestos case against Union Carbide Corp. Jurors rejected, 11-1, Lanier's argument that a company facing asbestos liabilities was victimized by its supplier. He compared asbestos suppliers to drug dealers, Osama bin Laden and a lynch mob, said Peter Bicks, Union Carbide's lead attorney.