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CSX claims racketeering in Pittsburgh law firms legal tactics

Publication Date: 
July 31, 2011
Source: 
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Author: 
Rich Lord

Professor Deborah Hensler is quoted by Rich Lord of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on the message a new lawsuit filed by one of the nation's biggest transportation companies against a prominent trial law firm may be sending to plantiffs.

The quarry has turned on the hunter in a West Virginia courtroom, and now one of the nation's biggest transportation companies is locked in a bitter fight with one of Pittsburgh's most prominent trial law firms.

After years of feeling like they were being railroaded by asbestosis lawsuits, lawyers for CSX Transportation in 2005 sued Robert Peirce & Associates, accusing it of fraud and negligence in the massive cases it brought. The Jacksonville-based corporation lost a 2009 trial, but in court filings in recent weeks it detailed a new theory -- that the Peirce firm is a racketeering-influenced corrupt organization that has committed wire fraud and mail fraud in its pursuit of claimants and settlements.

...

The corporation is sending a bracing message to plaintiffs' lawyers, said Deborah R. Hensler, a professor of dispute resolution for Stanford Law School. "We're going to challenge you. We're going to make it more expensive for you. We're going to make it more risky for you."

...

In 1999, West Virginia created an expedited system aimed at settling cases. At the same time, talk of either a government-administered claim system or a nationwide settlement of all claims drove plaintiff's lawyers to push vast numbers of cases into the system, said Ms. Hensler.

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If such maneuvers discourage the filing of fraudulent claims, that could prove healthy, said Ms. Hensler.

Fraud "brings the whole plaintiff's bar into disrepute, and it makes it easier for corporate lobbyists to succeed in making political claims that the plaintiffs' bar is bad, that all plaintiffs' litigation is frivolous," she said.

But if the RICO law becomes a tool to scare off the plaintiffs' firms or punish them with endless and expensive court fights, "that would be a negative," she said. "I think this would be a reason for concern if it became some sort of strategic move."