Watts' wars

Marilyn Tennissen Jun. 13, 2007, 7:00am

Mikal Watts

South Texas trial lawyer Mikal Watts considers himself a warrior. His Watts Law Firm Website is full of quotes by Sun Tzu, a Chinese author who wrote the "Art of War" in the fifth-century B.C., and photos of masked fencers thrusting and jabbing at their foes.

But who exactly is Watts at war against? Some large corporations for one thing.

Watts took on Bridgestone/Firestone in a 2001 product liability case, winning more than $13 million for the plaintiffs. Then in 2005 he went to battle with Ford Motor Company on SUV rollovers. Watts had at least 40 cases against the auto company, and won three important victories with awards totaling more than $100 million. He has also won a jury award in the first trial in the country over the diabetes drug Rezulin.

"We've beaten the largest and most powerful corporations in America," the Watts Law Firm site proclaims.

And Watts makes no bones about his aggressiveness.

He says he graduated from the University of Texas Law School by age 21 and joined an established firm in Corpus Christi. But in 1997, he established his own firm which in the past 10 years has won verdicts and negotiated settlements exceeding $1 billion.

"Lean. Fast.Creative. We founded the Watts Law Firm to do things differently," the site states. "Not to employ rooms full of lawyers ... but to get to the quickest trial setting possible ... and apply pressure until the lawsuit is settled on your terms or won in court."

The firm has offices in Houston, San Antonio, McAllen and Brownsville and specializes in catastrophic personal injury, products liability, aviation and toxic torts.

"We're gratified that our results have been noticed," Watts' site boasts. "National Law Journal named us to its 'Hot List' of the top plaintiffs' firms in the United States in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 1997, 1998 and 2003 our verdicts were listed among National Law Journal's top ten for the year. For three years in a row, Texas Monthly has named Mikal Watts one of the top 100 lawyers in Texas. The Wall Street Journal called him 'a rising star of the Plaintiffs' bar.' "

But Watts takes his battlefield experience outside the courtroom and into the political arena.

For the most part, his opponents are Republicans, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates. Among them John Edwards, John Kerry and Tom Daschle.

The Austin American Statesman reported that according to the Texas Ethics Commission, Watts has given more than $2 million personally or through his law firm to state candidates or groups since 2002, and more than $114,000 to candidates for federal office since 2004.

In 2003, Watts also gave $75,000 to Save Texas Courts, an unsuccessful trial lawyer campaign to defeat Proposition 12, which capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.

However some sources say that Watts' political adversaries aren't that clear cut.

Texas Shark Watch reports that in 2004 Watts gave $125,000 to the Good Government Political Action Committee, which in turn contributed $10,000 to David Dewhurst, $25,000 to GOP plaintiff lawyer State Rep. Bryan Hughes and $50,000 to HillCo PAC, an Austin lobbying firm that has made large donations to Republican statewide officials. Watts has also contributed thousands to Republican Texas Supreme Court Justices Wallace Jefferson and Paul Green.

Now Watts, 39, is turning his warfare strategy against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Last month, Watts hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee at his home in San Antonio, where he has lived since 2006. The event raised $1.1 million.

The Houston Chronicle reported recently that Watts has $3.8 million on hand to campaign with, an amount equal to what Cornyn has available at this time.

"I took John Cornyn's first-quarter report and matched it to the penny," Watts said in a June 7 article. "We're going to start with a level playing field, and then we're going to start raising money and see what the people of Texas have to say."

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