Ordinarily, the decision to settle a case while an appeal is pending means giving up the opportunity to set a legal precedent as well as forgoing the chance to win a reversal of any unfavorable published decisions handed down by the lower court.
But a team of defense lawyers fighting to overturn a $24 million verdict have figured out a way to have their settlement cake and eat their jurisprudence, too.
The confidential settlement in Klein v. Amtrak -- a case in which two trespassing teenagers climbed atop a parked train car and suffered serious burns when they got too close to a 12,000-volt catenary wire -- included an unusual provision that called for the trial judge to vacate all of his published opinions and have them removed from Lexis and Westlaw.
And it worked.
A few months after holding an hourlong oral argument, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in late July to remand the case to the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel, who, in turn, agreed to vacate eight of his published opinions and to "direct" Lexis and Westlaw to remove them from their databases.
Gretchen DeSutter, a spokeswoman for Westlaw, said Stengel's request to remove the opinions would "absolutely" be honored, and that any instance in which a judge vacates a published opinion automatically leads to its withdrawal from Westlaw's database.
Calls to Lexis were not returned by press time.
Exactly how the lawyers went about persuading Stengel to take such an unusual step is impossible to say because all of the court papers are under seal and none of the lawyers will talk about it.
Plaintiffs attorney Joseph F. Roda of Roda & Nast in Lancaster, Pa., said, "All I can tell you, I think, is that the case has settled."
Robert C. Clothier of Fox Rothschild, who has handled access cases for The Legal Intelligencer, said he was troubled by the court's decision to allow the defense lawyers to file all of their motions under seal, including the motion that asked for permission to seal the other papers.
To justify sealing any document, Clothier said, the courts have consistently held that it is necessary to "articulate on the record" the extraordinary circumstances that justify secrecy. As a result, he said, the motion to seal itself cannot be under seal.
The audiotape of the 3rd Circuit oral argument reveals that the three-judge panel had tough questions for both sides and that no clear winner emerged.
In five years of litigation, Klein v. Amtrak spawned a series of legally significant decisions -- all now withdrawn -- on issues such as how to apply the "attractive nuisance" doctrine in a case where the injured plaintiff was nearly 18 years old, and the standard of proof required to show that a landowner was aware of a risk because of similar prior accidents.
In April 2008, Stengel issued a 60-page opinion that upheld the jury's verdict, rejecting a slew of arguments that challenged his pretrial rulings, his jury instructions and the size of both the compensatory and punitive damage awards.
Stengel found that the jury's conclusions were supported by clear evidence that "Amtrak had every reason to know trespassers were regularly on its tracks and that teenage boys were inclined to climb to the top of parked boxcars."