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When Chilton Davis Varner was hired by Atlanta’s King & Spalding in 1976, she was the first woman in the litigation department. It was a time when products liability litigators rarely traveled, and big wins for plaintiffs were measured in six- and seven-figure amounts. Today “the b-word,” or billion, “is not unheard of,” Varner notes, and defense lawyers for corporations caught up in products liability are continually on the road. In a recent week, Varner flew on Monday to Salt Lake City to meet with local counsel preparing for a products liability trial against GlaxoSmithKline PLC scheduled there early next year. This meeting occupied all day Tuesday, then she flew to Connecticut, to meet with her client, Purdue Pharma L.P., to discuss litigation strategy on Wednesday. She then traveled by train to Philadelphia to meet with executives at Glaxo on Thursday. “You need to go where the clients, the witnesses and the cases are,” Varner says. A typical work day at her office in Atlanta begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 6:30 to 7 p.m. While the workload has increased and the exposure to defendants has grown, so has Varner’s career as a litigator. She has built a national reputation as one of the top products liability defense attorneys in the United States, regardless of gender. Varner has 25 years of courtroom experience as a trial lawyer defending corporations in products liability, commercial and other civil disputes for such clients as General Motors Corp., 3M, BASF Corp., General Electric Co., Coca-Cola Co., United Parcel Service Inc. and Nissan. She was the second woman to make partner at King & Spalding and the first woman elected to the firm’s management committee. Varner is one of GM’s lead trial counsels in products liability litigation and has recently been named one of the two national counsels for Purdue Pharma in the growing litigation over the opioid pain medication OxyContin. She has handled trials, motions and/or appeals in many states. Varner tries two to four cases a year but has lost only twice at the jury level — once in 1981, a products case for GM where the verdict was $4 million, and once in 2001, a breach-of-contract dispute in which her client was hit with a $75 million verdict. Some of her greatest wins lately, however, have come in pretrial motions and appeals, a large part of her practice. In 1999, she won a reversal at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of a summary judgment against American Airlines, where the trial court found the airline had committed willful misconduct in the Cali, Colombia, crash. In 2000, Varner won a summary judgment for GM dismissing a products case involving fatal injuries caused by deployment of an air bag; she first obtained a favorable Daubert ruling that ended with the court excluding both of the plaintiffs’ design experts. In 2001, Varner won the bench trial in Kentucky of a preliminary injunction in the OxyContin litigation. She also won a reversal last month of the federal criminal charges against SabreTech Inc. in the ValueJet crash. While Varner specializes in technology-heavy products cases, she does not have a background in such matters. It is not a drawback for a trial lawyer to be unversed in technical details at the start of a case, she believes. “If I have to learn it from the ground up, then I’ll be much more effective in explaining it to a lay jury.” Varner joined the legal profession at a time when women litigators were rare, but she does not believe this harmed her career. In some cases today, she says, defendants would rather hire a woman lawyer, to soften the appearance of the corporation. In products liability involving women’s health issues, she says, “there can be an advantage. No one could allege that I had a condescending view.” Early in her career, she says, being the only woman lawyer in a trial had its benefits. “I was remembered when others were not.”

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