Patrick Flaherty isn’t exactly what you call a train buff.

But he’s been working for the railroads for more than 30 years. Not as an employee. But as a trial counsel for the industry, carving out a successful niche that recently won him a national award.

He vividly remembers his first case.

“It was a death action,” said Flaherty, who works at Cooney, Scully, and Dowling, in Hartford. “That accident occurred in West Hartford when someone crossed the tracks while the train was passing by. I was representing the railroad. The victim only got $1.”

And what lead to that unusual verdict? Flaherty said there was speculation that five of the six jury members wanted to hand down a defense verdict for the railroad. But there was one hold-out in favor of the plaintiff. So as a compromise, the jury ruled for the plaintiff but awarded only a nominal sum.

Actually, the jurors returned an initial verdict of $2, but because they held the plaintiff 50 percent at fault, the actual award to the dead man’s estate was $1. “The deceased’s adult children were pleased because it absolved their father of a suggestion of suicide. And my client, the railroad, was pleased with the miniscule amount of the verdict,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty, 79, is a Newington resident and Yale Law School graduate who has been at same firm for all 53 years he’s been a lawyer. Initially, he had a general trial practice. He got into railroad law for a simple reason — a partner who had been handling those cases left for another job.

Not all the railroad work has been as unusual as that first West Hartford case. But over the years, Flaherty has defended claims by railroad workers who said they lost hearing while working around trains and others who claimed they were harmed by being around asbestos.

Flaherty said one aspect of representing railroads that always struck him was how people always thought of them as big and bad. “When you are defending a railroad, most people have a Jesse James complex and they want to get the railroad. It’s a different client to represent,” Flaherty said. “It’s a cultural thing. We all grew up watching movies about railroads,” he said, mentioning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which the outlaws played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford rob a train (among other things).

It was the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel that recently honored Flaherty.

“We awarded Pat the 2012 Distinguished Member Award in recognition of his exceptional contributions to NARTC since he joined in February of 1979. We truly appreciate his personal and professional commitment to our association and the rail industry,” said Michelle Mills Thorpe, NARTC’s executive director.

The National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel, which has been around for 58 years, is made up of more than 1,000 lawyers who do defense and plaintiffs work for the railroads. They come from the United States and Canada.

Flaherty was once vice president to the NARTC and was a longtime member of its executive committee. He co-authored the group’s history, which was published in 2004, on NARTC’s 50th anniversary. He called the history project a “fun job” because he got to interview many fellow railroad lawyers.

He said he had no idea that he was going to be given the award at last year’s meeting of the organization. “I was tremendously pleased. My wife and partners were all in on it,” Flaherty said, adding that when the award presenters began talking about the honoree, Flaherty thought they were speaking about someone else.

Flaherty acknowledges that he focused on railroad litigation more in the 1980s and 1990s than he does today. He explained that CSX, the rail-based freight transportation company, now uses lawyers from Boston to handle its legal issues. Flaherty’s practice also includes defending companies — including Owens Corning, a Fortune 500 firm — against claims from workers who said they developed asbestos-related diseases.

And he also had another unusual niche, for a time — defending beauty salons against claims from customers.

Even at 79, Flaherty still goes into the office daily. He said he has no plans to quit, laughing at the notion, because he still has a 16-year-old daughter to put through college.

Has his career niche affected his personal life? Not much.

“I wouldn’t call myself a train buff,” he said. “When it’s sensible, I will take the train, from New York to New Haven.”

Once, just for fun, he did take the train from New York to Orlando. “I wanted to try it and did it once with my family,” he said. He enjoyed reading on the way and taking in the scenery. The highlight was passing by the nation’s capital and getting to see “Washington lit up at night,” he said.•