Originally created 01/21/05

Victims begin to file claims



GRANITEVILLE - The recovery process has begun, and so has the onslaught of lawsuits against Norfolk Southern Corp.

Through Thursday, at least five had been filed against the railroad, all of which cite either personal injury or damage to private property.

The number is expected to rise as residents respond to the Jan. 6 collision between trains owned by Norfolk Southern and the subsequent chlorine spill that killed nine people, sent hundreds more to the hospital and led to the evacuation of an estimated 5,400 residents.

Attorneys who have flocked to the area are trying to reach as many clients as they can, hoping to establish that an entire class of people has been affected by the event, legal experts said.

"Obviously, the lawyer wants to represent as many claimants as possible," said Howard Stravitz, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. "It gives you more bargaining power."

It's possible a judge could divide claimants into separate classes, with some being lumped into a personal-injury category and others under property damage.

Potential lawsuits from families of the deceased are a different matter, experts said. Such claims would involve wrongful death litigation and possible compensation from Norfolk Southern for lost wages and other lost contributions.

Claimants could also seek punitive damages if an investigation of the accident, which is still being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, showed that Norfolk Southern knowingly did not correct something that could have prevented the collision.

"I have no doubt that they'll (attorneys will) make that claim," said O'Neal Smalls, another law professor at USC.

Attorneys say they won't decide how much money to seek from Norfolk Southern until they establish the extent of the damages. It is unclear how much money the company has paid out after recent accidents involving its trains.

The railroad is no stranger to the courtroom but insists on confidentiality agreements when it settles cases, said E.J. Leizerman, an attorney from Toledo, Ohio, who specializes in railroad litigation.

Attorneys from throughout the country have descended on the community and have bought full-page newspaper advertisements and TV commercials. A judge will decide who among them can actually practice in South Carolina.

Graniteville attorney Robert Bell, who was evacuated from his office until Tuesday night, and colleague Stephen Surasky, of Langley, joined forces with Mr. Leizerman because of his expertise in handling railroad lawsuits.

"We feel the people do need someone local to look after their interests," Mr. Bell said. "Norfolk Southern is not the good friend of the claimants around here."

The railroad would not discuss pending litigation but pointed out that it had written more than 4,700 checks to people affected by the crash. Legal experts said that compensation would be considered if the railroad is forced into court.

Many in the community have thanked the railroad for its help. But some attorneys say Norfolk Southern is simply trying to stave off more lawsuits.

They noted that the disclaimers on the back of checks written to evacuees early on said additional claims couldn't be made against Norfolk Southern. The railroad denied the allegation but stripped the checks of the disclaimer language nonetheless.

"It was not worded very clearly, and it caused a lot of confusion. So we took it off," railroad spokesman Robin Chapman said.

"But it was never meant to keep people from coming back, and we have, in fact, had a lot of repeat business."



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