All the Livelong Day

Susan Armstrong’s been working for the railroad

Published in 2007 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine — July 2007

“I love seeing the expressions on the jurors’ faces,” Susan C. Armstrong says, “when I put on a hard hat, safety goggles and work boots and demonstrate some aspect of railroad operations.”

Armstrong, a partner at Troutman Sanders in Richmond, began working with railroads when she represented CSX, a Class 1 railroad, in 1986; but it was in 1988, while second-chairing a successful week-long trial in an anti-railroad venue, that her mentor, Jack Kay, decided she’d earned the privilege of membership in the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel (NARTC). She fondly remembers her first meeting. “It was a very male-dominated group, but they seemed genuinely interested in sharing not only their war stories of past trials, but also the wisdom and knowledge they had gained through many years of hard work on behalf of railroads. … I’ll never forget the camaraderie of the group and how kind they were to this newcomer.”

Seventeen years later, Armstrong became the NARTC’s first female president. “It was an extraordinarily humbling experience,” she says. “I became president because of hard work done by other women before me.”

Armstrong’s conversation is sprinkled with railroad vernacular, such as “knuckle” (the heavy piece of equipment that connects cars) and “EOT” (an end-of-train device mounted in lieu of a caboose). For her, the legendary romance of the railroad is very much alive. “There is something enticing about being out in a railroad yard, or in the operating compartment of a locomotive, or throwing a switch or picking up a knuckle,” she says.

She has met folks who can tell stories about the railroads in the 19th century, as well as railroad buffs who will travel hundreds of miles to glimpse different aspects of railroad operations. “One of my former law partners was so enthralled with railroads,” she says, “that he spent literally hundreds of hours making a to-scale mock-up of an accident scene that we used to help the jury visualize [the accident]. He wouldn’t accept any payment for all his work because he said it wasn’t work.”

Such presentations are necessary for every NARTC attorney. “We come from all parts of the country but have had incredibly similar experiences and similar frustrations in our respective attempts to help juries understand the realities of railroad operations.”

To this end Armstrong has been quite creative. “In one case, my law partner played the part of a trespasser for a videotape simulation. He assumed the position of the trespasser, who we believed was drunk, and had passed out beside the track while the train crew re-created the incident.” She laughs. “Lying beside a railroad track in the middle of the night for a video was not something we were taught in law school.”

Armstrong says the men and women who do the hands-on work of the railroads are some of the finest people you’ll meet, and, though her one-year term as president ended in 2006, she plans to stay involved with railroad litigation.

“I’ll never forget the EOT case where the allegation was that the railroad negligently required an employee to handle an EOT that was”—here she makes air quotes— “‘too heavy for one man to carry by himself.’ I carried an EOT in each hand and had a bit of fun cross-examining the witness who made that statement.”

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