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Top trial lawyer departs Dechert for Weil, Gotshal

By Leigh Jones

(Reuters) - Top product liability trial lawyer Diane Sullivan has joined the elite law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges from Dechert.

Sullivan, who focuses on class actions, consumer fraud, life sciences, and other complex commercial disputes, joined Dechert in 2001. Her clients have included top pharmaceutical manufacturers Merck and AstraZeneca, as well as tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, a subsidiary of Altria Group. She started at Weil on Monday as a partner in the firm's litigation department.

Sullivan, 49, said Weil had been calling her "for about two years" asking her to consider moving from Dechert. "It was a very difficult decision, but it's a terrific opportunity to be an even better trial lawyer," she said.

Moving with Sullivan to Weil is Kathleen O'Connor, also a partner at Dechert. O'Connor, 46, focuses on complex commercial disputes, consumer fraud, mass torts and product liability. She was assistant in-house counsel at Merck from 2002 to 2006. She joined Dechert in 2006.

Last year, Sullivan, an aggressive litigator, won a verdict for Philip Morris, which was defending against a $455 million lawsuit in Missouri state court brought by 37 hospitals. The hospitals claimed that Philip Morris and other cigarette makers were liable for defective design and should be responsible for paying indigent patients' healthcare costs.

In 2010, Sullivan scored a verdict for Seroquel manufacturer, AstraZeneca, in New Jersey state court. The plaintiff, a Vietnam veteran, claimed that the company failed to warn doctors that the antipsychotic drug caused patients to become diabetic. A jury found that the warnings to the doctors were sufficient.

Sullivan also represented Merck & Co. in a closely watched 2005 New Jersey trial before Judge Carol Higbee over whether arthritis painkiller Vioxx caused a postal worker's heart attack. The jury found that Merck fairly warned of the drug's safety risks and did not commit consumer fraud.

Sullivan clashed several times with Higbee during the 2005 Vioxx trial and again during a 2007 Vioxx trial over similar claims. In the 2007 trial, Higbee held Sullivan in contempt and fined her $1,000 for her questioning tactics during cross-examination. The judge later threw out the contempt order and fine for reasons that were unclear.

Peggy Heffner, a spokeswoman for Dechert, said in a statement that Sullivan and O'Connor "have been valued members of our firm for many years.

New York-based Weil, Gotshal & Manges has about 1,150 lawyers in 20 offices worldwide.

(Reporting by Leigh Jones; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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