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By the time Mikal C. Watts was 16 years old, he says, “I knew what kind of law I wanted to practice and who I wanted to work for. When I was a junior in high school,” he recalls, “David Perry won a $100 million verdict against Ford in a Pinto case.” Watts decided to be a plaintiffs’ attorney and work for Perry, who was one of the top plaintiffs’ lawyers in Texas. “Perry was the 800-pound gorilla in my part of world,” Watts adds. Right out of law school, after a one-year stint as a clerk for then Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, Watts came to work for the firm now known as Perry & Haas. “Perry was an extraordinary mentor,” he says. “He was a master of pretrial preparation.” During his years at the firm, Watts says, he learned that large verdicts or settlements for plaintiffs “were solely the result of hard work. A lawsuit is like a house. You have to have a good solid foundation. No level of detail is too small.” Watts joined the firm in September 1990 and by December 1991, was named a partner. But the nature of the practice frustrated Watts. “There weren’t that many trials there. That’s one of the reasons I left.” So he struck out on his own in April 1997 with fellow plaintiffs’ lawyer Bryan K. Harris, starting the two-lawyer firm Harris & Watts. In 2001, he left that practice and began another firm, Watts & Heard. Since leaving the Perry firm, Watts has established a record as one of the most effective plaintiffs’ trial attorneys in the United States — of any age. In 1998, he won an $80 million verdict against Chrysler Corp. In 2000, he won a $122.57 million verdict against Coastal Corp. In 2001, Watts won nearly $100 million in judgments, including $43 million in a claim involving the diabetic medication Rezulin, $20 million in a bench trial over a breach of contract and $15.5 million in a products liability claim over a faulty Sulzer Medica hip replacement. In addition, Watts achieved a settlement, while the jury was deliberating, with Firestone of one of the few Ford-Firestone cases to get to trial; despite confidentiality agreements, it was reported to be $7.5 million. So far in his career, he notes, he has had 128 settlements of $1 million or more, including 90 since leaving the Perry firm. That first megaverdict against Chrysler in 1998 may have been the most significant. He was representing the estates of a husband and wife who had burned to death following the rollover of a Dodge pickup truck. A Rio Grande, Texas, jury awarded $80 million and the case later settled. The amount was confidential, but, Watts notes, “it was a lot of money. It kind of financed everything.” Within months of the settlement, the two-lawyer firm was up to eight attorneys; the newly formed Watts & Heard now has 30 attorneys and offices in five Texas cities. Along the way, Watts has moved away from the patterns established by other plaintiffs’ lawyers. “Over the last two years I’ve worked to redirect my practice. I force a lot more cases to trial.” He had the first case brought to trial over Rezulin and the first Sulzer Medica hip-replacement case brought to trial. He is also scheduled to try the first plaintiffs’ case in the Baycol litigation this fall. Baycol is a cholesterol-reducing drug that is the subject of a growing number of lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming the drug caused deaths and personal injuries. “I very much prefer being the first one to try a case. You have to be very careful not to screw it up,” he says. “Entire fortunes are invested in these litigations. If I try the first of these cases and lose, I’ve not only harmed my clients but other lawyers and other clients.” But, he says, the greatest rewards go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers who win the first cases in any major piece of litigation. “The guy who takes the first risk gets a great deal more of the cases filed.”

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