Though he defeated the Romans at Heraclea and Asculum in 280-279 B.C., King Pyrrhus of Epirus lost so many of his best soldiers that he could not afford to risk another such triumph. The cost of victory had been too high.

Illinois Central Railroad may be on the verge of its own Pyrrhic victory.

In November 2006, Illinois Central filed a fraud suit against two plaintiffs' attorneys who'd led an asbestos class action against the company. Illinois Central alleged that the attorneys intentionally had concealed the involvement of two clients in a prior asbestos class action.

In March of this year, a federal jury concluded that William Guy and Thomas Brock had committed fraud. Guy and Brock were ordered to return $210,000 in settlements from their class action suit against Illinois Central and pony up another $210,000 in punitive damages.

Illinois Central is now seeking to be reimbursed for the nearly $1 million in attorneys fees it incurred over the course of its four-year battle. Guy and Brock have challenged the number of hours logged by the company's law firm.

U.S. District Judge David Bramlette has ordered an accounting of attorneys fees from both sides. If he declines to award fees to Illinois Central, the company will have spent more than twice as much as it recovered in its challenge to the asbestos fraudsters.

That would be a Pyrrhic victory, indeed.

Unfortunately, it would also send the wrong message to other corporate victims of attorney fraud and excess -- that it's better to accept defeat and cut your losses, even when you're right, than to fight back and risk losing a bundle.

Plaintiffs' attorneys have disseminated that message for years, because it promotes prompt settlement of weak cases and allows them to move on to their next target case.

On the other hand, if Judge Bramlette does award the fees to Illinois Central, it will send a message to plaintiffs' attorneys to think twice before filing frivolous suits.

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