Arkansas High Court Denies Class-Action For Union Pacific Lawsuit

May 11, 2009

A lawsuit claiming Union Pacific pressured grieving families into settlements after train crashes shouldn’t be a class-action matter, as those suing failed to show any strong link between themselves, the Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled.

Justice Elana Cunningham Wills wrote in the Court opinion that Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson erred in granting the case class-action status. Arkansas residents James Freeman, Robert Udell and Victor Vickers sued the company, asking for class-action status to involve anyone injured or who lost a family member in crashes at crossings, on a rail or near one from 1992 to Feb. 15, 2005.

Udell’s daughter was killed in an incident involving a Union Pacific train. Vickers and Freeman suffered injuries in separate incidents.

Lawyers for the families said as many as 300 who settled cases with Union Pacific without a legal assistance could be included as plaintiffs. However, Wills wrote that wasn’t strong enough to support a class-action lawsuit against the Omaha, Neb.-based railroad carrier.

“The only thing that all of the plaintiffs have in common is that they settled a claim against Union Pacific,” Wills wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber wrote that testimony from Union Pacific’s former claims department director showed that the company had a “consistent pattern and practice” for settling claims. That included reaching families within 48 hours of a crash while they still didn’t have legal counsel, Imber wrote.

“In the negotiations, claims representatives attempted to establish relationships of trust and confidence,” the justice wrote. The plaintiffs “were told that ‘a lawyer wouldn’t do you any good’ and that ‘if you get a lawyer, you probably wouldn’t … get a certain amount … because most of it would go to the lawyer fee.”‘

Tom Lange, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the company was “gratified that the court agreed there was no evidence of a pattern of misconduct.” Phillip Duncan, a Little Rock lawyer representing the families suing the railroad company, did not return a call for comment.

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