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Taking a high-stakes product liability case to trial for a major pharmaceutical company is nerve-racking enough. Try doing it with criminal charges hanging over your head. In May, prominent Los Angeles litigator Pierce O’Donnell of O’Donnell & Shaeffer was defending Pfizer Inc. in a case brought on behalf of two people who died after taking the diabetes drug Rezulin and a third who became ill. Rezulin was taken off the market in 2000 after it was linked to liver failure and 63 deaths. (More than 35,000 individuals have sued Pfizer over the drug, and the company has a mixed record with the handful that have gone to trial.) In this first Rezulin trial in California, O’Donnell was facing off against plaintiffs heavyweight Thomas Girardi of Los Angeles’ Girardi & Keese. On May 20, six weeks into the trial, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office filed a misdemeanor complaint against O’Donnell, accusing him of making illegal campaign contributions to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn in 2000 and 2001. The 26-count complaint accuses O’Donnell and seven others of “laundering” contributions by sending $25,000 in the names of others, allowing them to skirt limits of $1,000 per donor. O’Donnell could face six months behind bars for each count, if convicted. O’Donnell’s attorney, George O’Connell of Sacramento’s Stevens & O’Connell, persuaded the court to keep the complaint under seal until the Rezulin trial ended. O’Donnell claims the threat of prison time didn’t distract him during the trial. “It probably made me focus more,” he says. On May 27, after two days of deliberations, the state court jury returned a defense verdict, finding that Girardi had failed to show that Rezulin was a substantial factor in the plaintiffs’ deaths and illness. Pfizer was “very pleased” with the verdict, according to a company spokesman. As for the criminal matter, O’Donnell notes that he has “an unblemished record” and “fully expect[s] a favorable resolution.” Susan Beck is a San Francisco-based senior writer for The American Lawyer magazine, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City. Her e-mail address is sbeck @ amlaw.com.

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