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Front Page - Friday, August 18, 2017

Defending railroads has perks for Carden

Rob Carden is an associate in the Chattanooga office of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan. His practice emphasizes civil defense litigation. - Photograph by David Laprad

Trains fascinated Rob Carden as a boy. With a grandfather who worked for Southern Railway in Chattanooga, he grew up around the steel beasts and developed a deep and abiding affection for them.

At 31, Carden still loves trains. But unlike the awestruck adolescent who liked to clamber onto the giant machines on which his grandfather worked, he has the responsibilities that come with being an adult, including earning a living.

As luck would have it, Carden’s job allows him to continue to spend time on and around trains. He’s not a railroader like his grandfather, though, but an attorney with Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan.

In his role as a civil defense litigator, Carden sometimes finds himself defending the railroads the firm represents. While it’s grown-up work, he’s occasionally called upon to do things that would have thrilled the child he once was.

“Some days, I get to put on work boots and climb onto big trains or walk along the ballast at a railroad,” he says, a boyish grin stretching across his face. “There are days when I’m in my office sitting at my desk, but also days when I get to go out and play with big toys.”

Carden might sound like a kid describing an afternoon of unbridled fun, but he means business when it comes to serving his clients. In addition to railroad litigation, his vocation entails workers’ compensation, personal injury, construction litigation and more. It’s a varied practice that often requires him to rise to new challenges.

Although Carden won’t discuss the cases he’s tried due to confidentiality concerns, his success in certain instances speaks for itself.

Among the victories the still relatively young attorney has claimed are a defense verdict for a client in a $25 million wrongful death suit, the time he obtained summary judgment in a suit to recover attorneys’ fees and workers’ compensation benefits for a client, and two cases in which he led clients through federal investigations arising out of multi-million-dollar accidents.

It’s a solid collection of wins for an attorney who didn’t commit to practicing law until he was in law school.

A Chattanooga native, Carden inherited a large family upon birth, courtesy of both sides of his parentage. (His mother was one of six children; his father was one of three.) Immersed in grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and two brothers, the young Carden grew up adoring both his family and the city in which he lived.

When it was time for Carden to stretch his wings and leave the nest, he did so with the intent of returning to Chattanooga after completing his higher education. “We had a village,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to come back to be with my family.”

In 2004, a soccer scholarship took Carden to Kings College in Bristol, where he studied business and played sports but thought little about his future.

“I had no plan. I didn’t intern anywhere and I didn’t look for work. I just moved through school, playing soccer and not giving much consideration to what I would do after graduation,” Carden says.

By his junior year, however, Carden began contemplating law school, if not being a lawyer.

“I thought law school would give me more time to figure out what I wanted to do,” he says. “Even if I never practiced law, I thought the degree would be advantageous in the grand scheme of things.”

No one in Carden’s extensive family had practiced law, so he was on his own when it came to choosing a school.

Carden initially attended classes at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham. For his second and third years, he transferred to Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis to save money.

Carden had settled on becoming a lawyer. But the job market looked dim.

The economy had crashed in 2008, dampening business-related transactional work (especially tasks related to real estate purchases and construction projects), and word had trickled down to law schools that firms were laying off and hiring fewer and fewer associates.

To brighten his prospects for an internship, Carden turned to his largest and most reliable resource: his family, which rallied on his behalf and began contacting friends who practiced law.

The outreach struck gold. Through an uncle who played in a summer soccer league with Chattanooga attorney Al Henry, Carden secured an internship with Luther Anderson. This led to a job offer prior to the start of Carden’s third year of law school, which he gratefully accepted.

Given the nature of the Luther Anderson’s work, Carden knew he’d be primarily practicing defense-oriented litigation, but that was beside the point: he was simply thrilled to have a found a professional home.

“Having a job offer before I went into my third year of law school was great no matter what they asked me to do,” Carden says.

Carden started work as an associate at Luther Anderson in 2011. He quickly found himself liking not just the practice of law but also the attorneys he labored beside. As a greenhorn, he knew the law but not necessarily how to practice it. His colleagues remedied that by showing him the ropes.

Although Carden spent most of his time under the tutelage of Henry, Carden also learned from Gerry Sicilliano, Danny Ripper and Sam Anderson himself. Carden is grateful to this day for their mentoring.

“They were very patient,” he says. “They taught me how to practice law and struck a good balance between oversight and giving me enough leeway to figure things out for myself.”

In 2014, an opportunity to practice railway litigation prompted Carden to move from Luther Anderson to Leitner Williams.

Since joining the firm, Carden has not only grown his practice but also matured as an attorney. He’s no longer the undergraduate who rode a sports scholarship to graduation or the law student who had no grasp on his future.

That purpose is rooted in his work as a civil defense litigator. Each day, Carden says he is focused on finding justice.

“The law is a tool for justice. Some people think justice is served only when a plaintiff wins, but justice also involves restraint,” he says.

“If you look at justice only from a plaintiff’s side, who describes what the appropriate amount of justice – if it’s measured in dollars – actually is? And who’s there to weed out the frivolous from the meritorious?

“Both sides deserve justice. That can involve awarding damages to those who have been wronged but also limiting them to an amount that’s just and preventing damages from being awarded to someone who hasn’t been wronged.”

With this perspective of justice in mind, Carden is not just comfortable with representing railroads and other large companies in court, he’s passionate about it.

“There needs to be protection for both individuals and companies of all sizes to ensure the balance doesn’t sway too far from the middle line of justice,” he says.

Carden’s work doesn’t stop when he leaves the office, court or rail yard. Rather, gives a portion of his remaining time to a number of professional organizations and local nonprofits.

His love for this hometown has led him to serve on the board of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy and as co-chair of the Friends of Memorial Council at Memorial Hospital. In 2016, the latter established scholarships for Memorial employees to advance their nursing degree, which Carden says will benefit the community as a whole.

In addition, Carden is a member of several professional organizations, including the Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA), the Tennessee Bar Association, the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association (TDLA) and the Defense Research Institute.

As an active member of the CBA, Carden is serving on the board of the Young Lawyers Division. He’s also been co-chair of the Young Lawyers Selection Committee of the TDLA since 2015.

“Leitner Williams encourages us to get out of the office and become involved in the things the matter to us,” Carden says. “Chattanooga matters to me.”

The rest of Carden’s time is devoted to his family, which includes his new bride, Suzy, a native of Memphis and an occupational therapist at Siskin Hospital.

Although the two married this year, they’ve been in each other’s life since 2010, when a childhood friend suggested Carden call Suzy after he returned to Memphis for his third year of law school. He took her advice, and today, is happier than ever that he did.

With only a few months of marriage under their belts, the Cardens are still in their honeymoon phase, which is fortunate considering they won’t be taking their actual honeymoon until later this year. Carden remains tight-lipped about the details but does say he and Suzy enjoy traveling.

When home, the couple likes to trail run and mountain bike together. Although Carden is an avid runner – he’s completed the Boston Marathon three times – he no longer competes in races; he simply runs for the benefits and pleasures of it.

Despite having a full life outside the office, Carden must eventually make his way back to work.

Once there, he continues to grow his practice, skillfully represent clients and, on some days, play with big toys.

It’s a career Carden didn’t anticipate when he was younger but it’s one he zealously pursues and hopes to enjoy for many years to come.