Ohio judge hears competing proposals for train derailment lawsuits

A general view of the site where toxic chemicals were spilled following a train derailment, in East Palestine
A burnt container is seen at the site where toxic chemicals were spilled following a train derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio. REUTERS/Alan Freed
  • Competing firms emphasize national experience, local ties
  • Over two dozen lawsuits have resulted from Feb. 3 derailment

(Reuters) - Two groups of attorneys vying for lead roles in more than two dozen lawsuits against Norfolk Southern over last month's Ohio train derailment faced off before a federal judge on Friday, presenting competing proposals to steer the litigation - with one group emphasizing its national experience and the other touting its local roots.

U.S. District Judge Benita Yalonda Pearson in Youngstown had asked the lawyers to present their plans for leading the lawsuits that stem from the Feb. 3 crash of a Norfolk-operated train in East Palestine that caused cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals to spill and catch fire.

The lawsuits are seeking compensation for property damage, ongoing medical monitoring for the community, and punitive damages.

Seth Katz of law firm Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine on Friday argued for a team led by attorneys from four national law firms including his own, Grant & Eisenhofer, Morgan & Morgan and Simmons Hanly Conroy with the support of roughly two dozen attorneys in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

The high profile, complicated fight with Norfolk Southern would benefit from the considerable resources and experience at their collective disposal, Katz said.

The competing so-called “Team Ohio” would be led by attorneys from national firm Hagens Berman and Ohio-based Strauss Troy with the backing of a relatively lean supporting cast including nine attorneys from four other Ohio-based firms, one Louisiana-based firm and one Kentucky-based firm.

Jeffrey Goldenberg of Ohio-based firm Goldenberg Schneider said the team's local focus could leverage existing ties to the East Palestine community to effectively communicate with residents and gain their trust.

Pearson said she would likely decide between the proposals, or create her own leadership structure, early next week. But she said she won't be swayed solely by existing community ties.

"It is on my shoulders, the decision," Pearson said. "In fact, it is often the task of the judge to do what's best for the community, even if it's not what the community might perceive as best for itself."

The state of Ohio and the U.S. Department of Justice have also filed separate lawsuits seeking reimbursement for cleanup and other costs stemming from the derailment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February issued an order requiring Norfolk Southern to develop plans to address contamination and pay EPA’s response costs.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told lawmakers last week the company is "committed" to addressing impacts to home values, long-term health impacts and potential effects on drinking water.

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