Illinois Central wins case, loses money

The Madison County Record Feb. 6, 2011, 12:25am

"You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can." It may be just an updated, idiomatic rendering of carpe diem, but the old Schlitz beer slogan makes for some kind of personal motto, if properly applied.

The two words at the end strike a cautionary note: "Grab for all the gusto you can," suggesting that a person can overdo the gusto-grabbing and maybe try for too much or miss the grab altogether.

A longtime target of questionable asbestos lawsuits, Illinois Central Railroad eyed the gusto a while ago, hunting for payback from two plaintiff's attorneys who, a court ruled, had defrauded the company out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Such counterattacking ambition is atypical. Wronged corporations no doubt dream of courthouse revenge, of going after those who cost them gobs of time and money, but the harsh reality of defense counsel's hourly legal rates interrupts the fantasy.

Companies don't often grab for it because of corporate loathing to pay the price for it, thus allowing the cycle of frivolity to continue.

In November 2006, Illinois Central manned up, filing a fraud suit against William Guy and Thomas Brock, attorneys accused of intentionally concealing the involvement of two clients in a prior asbestos class action, while leading a class action against the company.

Some four years and 5,731 billed hours later, the company won. Last March, Guy and Brock were ordered to return $210,000 in settlements from their class action suit to Illinois Central and pony up another $210,000 in punitive damages.

Then there was the matter of those legal fees. Illinois Central sought reimbursement for about $1 million in legal fees incurred during its four-year battle. Unfortunately for the company, U.S. District Judge David Bramlette awarded roughly half that amount.

"Illinois Central's 5,731 attorney hours and nearly $1 million in legal fees is extraordinarily high," Bramlette wrote. "Even given the very real possibility of recovering punitive damages, attorneys fees that are nearly five times the maximum compensatory damages recoverable are not reasonable."

All of which left Illinois Central $67,000 in the hole, a cautionary tale.

When you go for the gusto in our civil courts, a great victory can be a losing proposition.

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