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Prempro Trial Judge Uses Mule Experience to Deal With Lawyers

Judge Bill Wilson
Wilson oversees lawsuits against Pfizer Inc.’s menopause drugs Prempro and Premarin. Photographer: Benjamin Krain/Bloomberg

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson is comfortable among stubborn creatures.

Wilson, whose court is in Little Rock, Arkansas, spends his days wrangling with lawyers as he works his way through some of the 8,000 lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages over Pfizer Inc.’s menopause drugs Prempro and Premarin. At night, he relaxes by corralling his prize Tennessee walking mules on a 15- acre farm.

While the mules live up to their reputation for stubbornness, they have a finely tuned “sense of self preservation,” Wilson said in an interview. “They are like lawyers in that regard.”

The judge, who refused to consolidate the Prempro cases into a class action, or group suit, is set to preside today over the 13th stand-alone trial for damages allegedly caused by the drug. Averse to forcing parties to settle, he’s known for giving his lawyers, like his mules, their heads in litigation. With that attitude, he’s likely to repeat his referee role frequently as the drug disputes play out.

Wilson, 70, oversees Prempro suits consolidated in a so-called multidistrict litigation, or MDL, which is designed to save time and money in pretrial exchanges of evidence between the drugmaker and plaintiffs. The judge also presides over jury trials focusing on claims the drug caused breast cancer.

Down-Home Humor

Wilson is known for sprinkling down-home humor in court and his rulings, said Morgan “Chip” Welch, a lawyer who has practiced before him.

The judge once warned lawyers scheduling pretrial witness sessions not to “load one firm’s wagon with more poles than a mule can pull.” He said the chance he’d make a particular ruling had “as much chance as a gnat has flying out of tar paper.”

“He’s got a million of those sayings,” Welch, a Little Rock lawyer, said in an interview. “While he has a homespun manner, he backs that up with a sharp legal mind and well-reasoned decisions.”

Women such as Margaret Wilson, who isn’t related to the judge, contend officials of Pfizer’s Wyeth unit knew Prempro and Premarin carried a risk of breast cancer and didn’t disclose it. The companies denied the claims. Jury selection starts today in Wilson’s Little Rock court.

Six Million Women

More than 6 million women took the hormone-replacement pills to treat menopause symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats and mood swings. The medicines are still on the market. New York-based Pfizer bought Wyeth last year for $68 billion.

Wyeth has lost seven of the 12 Prempro cases decided by juries since trials began in 2006. The drugmaker got some of those verdicts thrown out at the post-trial stage or had awards reduced.

In the last Prempro case tried before Wilson, jurors ordered Pfizer to pay a total of $27.1 million in damages to a woman who blamed the menopause drugs for her cancer. The company later settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

Wilson declined to comment on the Prempro litigation. The judge noted that he’s shied away from pushing Pfizer and plaintiffs’ lawyers to hammer out a so-called global settlement as part of the consolidation.

“I don’t believe MDL judges should put themselves in the role of mediators or arbitrators,” Wilson said in an interview earlier this year on his farm, dressed in cowboy boots and a Western hat. “People have a right in this country to their day in court if they want one. There are very few institutions left that I much faith in, but the jury system is one of them.”

Right to Jury

Besides his faith in the constitutional right to a jury trial, the judge voiced support for class-action suits, in which claims can be heard for thousands of people who couldn’t afford to sue on their own.

“I hold, in general, with those who take a rather kindly view of class actions,” Wilson wrote in a ruling in the Prempro cases. “They can be the Colt pistol of the little folks, i.e., in appropriate cases, they provide the key to the temple of justice for those who could not possibly afford an individual action against an economically advantaged defendant.”

Still, Wilson’s general support for class-actions didn’t extend to the consolidated Prempro cases. He found the suits didn’t have enough in common to justify proceeding as a group case. Earlier this year, he sent 200 of the cases back to their home courts for individual trials.

Clinton Nominee

Wilson was named to the bench in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, a fellow Arkansas native and Little Rock lawyer. The judge previously was a prosecutor, criminal-defense lawyer and civil litigator.

He handled product-liability suits, including rollover cases against Ford Motor Co., and has taught complex litigation at the University of Arkansas law school.

In his 17 years on the bench, Wilson said, he has seen lawyers become too dependent on technology to try cases rather than rely on their own courtroom skills. Some attorneys are helpless if their computer crashes, leaving them without PowerPoint slides for opening and closing arguments, he said.

“PowerPoint is both powerless and pointless if a lawyer doesn’t have a good case and hasn’t mastered the case,” Wilson said. “I fear that many lawyers have forgotten how to talk to juries.”

The judge uses unusual techniques to help jurors understand complicated cases. In cases hinging on expert testimony, Wilson said, he has ordered professors off the witness stand to sit by jurors to make their presentations.

“I let them make their case right next to each other so you can get a feel for what the rub of their positions are,” he said.

Unconventional Style

Wilson’s unconventional style is on display when he drives his extended-cab pickup truck, whose personalized license plate reads “NUTS2U.” The judge says he’s keeping the plate, which he got before becoming a judge, over the objections of his wife, an assistant state attorney general for Arkansas.

“She says it reflects too much juvenilia, but I like it,” he said. “It conveys my general attitude.”

A country-music fan and history buff, Wilson starts Prempro litigation status conferences with trivia quizzes for lawyers.

At a 2005 hearing, he posed the question: “On what day did Hank Williams die, what year?” according to a court transcript. Wilson presides at such hearings from a rocking chair on the bench.

When the lawyers couldn’t answer, Wilson launched into a 210-word explanation of the circumstances around Williams’ death and the singer’s blue 1952 Cadillac.

Musical Talent

“If you’re not interested in Hank Williams Sr., you don’t have much music talent and appreciation,” the judge proclaimed.

He cautioned Prempro lawyers to stop making personal attacks and avoid “stridency” in their arguments. “Remember, a soft answer turneth away wrath and wrath begets wrath,” he wrote in a 2007 letter to the attorneys, quoting Proverbs.

The judge’s Rasputin Mule Farm north of Little Rock provides the inspiration for many of his country witticisms, said Welch, a partner in the law firm Welch, Brewer & Hudson.

Dotted with woods, pastures and wild blueberry bushes, his farm is populated by three dogs, five cats, a dehorned goat, Guinea hens, a donkey and four mules. The dogs, a Great Pyrenees, a collie and a Catahoula hog dog, used to hunt wild boars, guard the chicken roosts, Wilson said.

Mule Championships

Wilson owns Cobb’s Believe It Or Not, the winner of the 1996 gaited-mule world championships in Tennessee. He prefers mules over horses because they can negotiate tougher terrain and provide a smooth ride.

“It feels like you are riding in a rocking chair,” the judge said. “When you are out hunting all day, it sure is nice to not be jolted around.” A sign on the door of his red barn reads: “The more I see of people, the more I prefer mules.”

The farm is home to mules Backyard Ben and Ellie May. It also has served as the retirement facility for Trooper and Traveler, mules that served as Army mascots for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Trooper died in 2007. Traveler continues to “age gracefully,” the judge said.

Over the years, Wilson’s mules have appeared at events including the Southwest Little Rock parade and the one following Clinton’s second inauguration, in Washington in 1996.

The farm is also an unusual training ground for Wilson’s law clerks. One of them, Bruce Coleson, said he helped the judge with “mule castration and goat dehorning.”

“I’m going to put those on my resume under job description for law clerk,” Coleson joked. The University of Texas School of Law graduate will join the Houston firm Baker Botts LLP in November to practice energy law.

‘Strictly Volunteer’

“I’ve had a few of them over the years,” Wilson said of his clerk-farmhands. “It’s strictly volunteer. If they want to come on over and help, they are more than welcome.”

For Coleson, the farm provided a venue for his swearing-in as a lawyer. The judge was sitting on Cobb’s Believe It Or Not, and the clerk sat astride Backyard Ben.

“I’m betting I’m the only Texas lawyer to get sworn in on muleback,” Coleson said.

“He looked good up there,” Wilson chuckled.

The case is In Re Prempro Products, 03-cv-01507-WRW, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas (Little Rock).

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