The phone rang at a rare moment between Angie Akins' frantic drives from her home and her husband's bedside in an intensive-care unit, between shuttling to her job and driving her 14-year-old daughter to after-school sports and ballet.
It was a lawyer who'd spotted her husband's name among those badly injured in the Sept. 12 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth. An attorney she had never met was urging her to retain him and sue the government railroad for all it was worth. Only a week had passed since her comfortable suburban life had been upended by tragedy.
"I didn't even write down the name, I was so upset at the time," Akins recalled. "I said I couldn't think about a lawsuit now when my husband might be dying!"
In the weeks since Metrolink Train 111 crashed head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, killing 25 and injuring at least 130 others, litigators have pursued clients so aggressively that the State Bar of California reminded lawyers of the professional sanctions they could face for initiating contact with accident victims.
"Any unsolicited contact with a potential client either in person or by telephone (and perhaps even by mail) by an attorney or someone acting on his or her behalf is both illegal and unethical," the bar's chief trial counsel, Scott J. Drexel, warned in a letter sent to area hospitals. "It is especially serious when the contact or solicitation takes place at the scene of the accident or at the hospital where the injured person has been taken for care and treatment."
The warning came as attorneys took out newspaper and TV advertisements, solicited on the Internet and even tracked down the injured at hospitals, all seeking a piece of what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars in damage awards for the victims and their loved ones.
One victim's cousin, who did not want to be identified in order to protect the family's privacy, told The Times her family had been called by a Los Angeles firm with an offer to pay funeral expenses in exchange for representing the family against Metrolink.
The state bar has cautioned potential claimants against agreeing to unsolicited representation or quick settlements, noting that the injured and distressed are often "unable to exercise reasonable judgment" in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.
The stakes are high for both the families and the attorneys hoping to represent them. Attorneys familiar with previous railroad accident settlements say the damage claims are expected to exceed the $200-million statutory cap on liability from any single accident. That cap has never been challenged in court.
The first legal action was filed just three days after the Chatsworth crash by the parents of 19-year-old Aida Magdaleno, a Cal State Northridge student who was killed.
The claim for unspecified damages, a necessary prelude to a liability suit in California, was filed by attorney Paul Kiesel of Kiesel Boucher & Larson and announced at a news conference.
Being the first lawyer to publicly announce representation can be an advantage in drawing the attention of other potential plaintiffs who aren't sure how to proceed and have little if any experience in retaining a lawyer, said Steve Bost, a personal injury lawyer with Ives, Kirwan & Dibble.
Some in the legal community, including Bost, are critical of the speed at which some firms acted.
"I don't chase and most good lawyers don't chase business like that," Bost said of the scramble by some to get business cards into the hands and firm names into the minds of those likely to sue for damages.
But R. Edward Pfiester Jr., a litigator who has 30 years of experience in suing railroads, argued that lawyers must be proactive because few clients are aware of California's six-month deadline for filing legal action over an accident.
Even among litigants who filed suit on time after the 2005 Glendale Metrolink crash, dozens saw their cases dropped because lawyers "didn't fill out all the forms or jump through the hoops and hurdles correctly," he said.
Pfiester was one of four attorneys with Hildebrand, McLeod & Nelson who convened two town hall meetings in Simi Valley last week to advise potential claimants on how to proceed. Before the meetings, Hildebrand attorneys had been retained by three victims' family members, they said. Before calling the meetings, Hildebrand got the word out with letters to the Chatsworth victims identified in media articles and broadcasts after the wreck.
"This is a little different from contacting victims," partner Anthony S. Petru said of the gatherings. "The purpose here is educational."
Akins, whose 53-year-old husband Gerald remains hospitalized with multiple broken bones, was one of about a dozen Metrolink riders or relatives in attendance. She said she went more to broaden her understanding of the legal issues than to find representation. She said she already had an appointment with another law firm recommended by her father-in-law.
Legal referral specialists recommend that crash victims and their relatives find lawyers the way they would find doctors or dentists: by word of mouth or recommendation from a trusted friend or associate.
Human resources departments at a victim's place of employment can also be helpful in directing them to legal representation, said Jeanette Aguirre, director of the state bar's Lawyer Referral Services Program, adding that investing time in researching and choosing a lawyer is a good shield against falling under the sway of ambulance chasers.
"We're not getting a lot of calls [from Metrolink victims], which tells me attorneys are already out there tracking them down," she said.
Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.