I have often wondered whether class action lawsuits give a bad name to the legal profession; whether they are more beneficial to attorneys who file them than the individuals they seek to protect. But if I had any doubts before, they were resolved when I read about a recent case involving railroad workers and Penn Central Transportation, a division of American Financial Group.

Forty four years ago, 32 railroad employees filed a lawsuit against Penn Central Transportation for losing their jobs (and seniority) after the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad combined in 1968. The former workers were seeking damages of $564,820 from the merged Penn Central Transportation Company which filed for bankruptcy protection under the Bankruptcy Act of 1898, 30 months after the merger. The former workers argued that this act carved out special protections for railroad workers. Penn Central argued that the 32 railroad employees were excluded from the protections because, as employees of a New York Central Railroad subsidiary, they were not direct employees.

After being heard at the district court level, three arbitration panels, and the federal Surface Transportation Board, a Federal Court of Appeals panel awarded the 32 railroad employees $14.2 million, most of it interest. By the time the case made it through the numerous appeals the defense attorneys had taken, the original plaintiff’s attorney had passed away. His daughter, also an attorney, continued representing plaintiffs on the original contingency fee arrangement her father had negotiated. She mortgaged her house in order to fund the cost of experts required to keep the case alive. By the time the case made it through the “Dickensian” odyssey (in the words of one of the many judges hearing the case) through the legal system, only two or the original plaintiffs were alive.

Fighting a lawsuit against big industry in today’s litigious environment requires resources, stamina and a sense of pragmatism: a realization that there comes a time where you have to reach for a settlement.