When she walked into Baxter's auditorium, she noticed the gender breakdown among the lawyers immediately. "It was so nice to see a room full of people who looked like me," Sullivan says. The partner she was with "was grumbling about 'all these women,' and all I could think was, 'This is so great!' "
That partner ended up leaving Hannoch several months later, before he and Sullivan took a case to trial. Despite the partner's departure, Baxter kept Sullivan as its New Jersey counsel and added her to its national trial team. It was a matter of right place, right time, Sullivan says"and Marla had enough faith in me to keep me on board."
For the next six years, Sullivan was Baxter's local counsel in New Jersey and helped try two cases in Houston, cross-examining plaintiffs, doctors who treated the plaintiffs, and experts. Baxter won both cases. "That was my big break," Sullivan says. "Without that litigation, my career could have turned out much differently."
Baxter's courtroom victories often came against high odds. Case in point: Crystal City, Texasa notoriously plaintiff-friendly venue 50 miles northeast of the Mexican border that bills itself as the spinach capital of the world. A Popeye figurine now sits on the desk of Christy Jones, a partner at Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Cannada in Jackson, Mississippi, who tried an implant case for Baxter in Crystal City in 1995. (Jones was on Baxter's radar because she had represented American Hospital Supply in the early 1980s.)
The town didn't have a hotel to use as meeting space, so her trial team rented a Winnebago camper with a pink velour interior and parked it outside the courthouse. "I prepared my closing argument for that trial on top of a trash can because our legal assistants were using the camper's one table to make ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch," Jones says. "I blame Debra Pole for sending me to that godforsaken place," she jokes.
Someone had to go. Plaintiffs lawyers had filed the suit against Baxter on behalf of two local women with breast implants who claimed that exposure to silicone gave them fibromyalgia. "Filing a suit in that county alone was considered a serious advantage for plaintiffs," says Jones. The jury deliberated for about two hours before announcing a defense verdict. Jones got the same result in the two other trials in the South too, and handled a fourth case that settled before trial.
"Some of Baxter's wins came at trial in places where people believed you just could not win," Jones says. "At the time, when there were thousands of cases pending against Baxter, everybody was anticipating each trial outcome. Any defense verdict significantly reduced the cost of the resolution for the client."
Throughout the years of litigation, Baxter steadfastly denied that it was responsible for illnesses and contended that the science behind the plaintiffs' claims was flawed. In the later stages of the litigation, Baxter kept some of the scientific evidence out of the courtroom and preempted trials altogether by challenging the admissibility of the plaintiffs' evidence under a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals , which set standards for the admissibility of expert testimony at trial.
Representing Baxter in cases pending in Colorado, New York, and Oregon, Mary Wellsthen a partner at Weller Fredrich Ward & Andrew and now a partner at Wells, Anderson & Race in Denverconvinced state court judges to toss suits by arguing that different pieces of evidence that the plaintiffs were attempting to use to link silicone breast implants to a wide variety of illnesses were inadmissible under Daubert. "The plaintiffs were trying to use as evidence the testimony of doctors who would say, 'I've seen 350 women, all have complained of this sort of illness and they all have implants, so there must be a connection.' That is not how science works. You have to use epidemiologically controlled studies, and they just didn't have those," she says.
That argument didn't always gain traction, including in the five cases that Wells helped take to verdict. She won four.