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    09.30.15 Bernadette Panzella ’81 and Susan Karten ’83 Find Redemption on 91st Street
    Bernadette Panzella and Susan Karten

    More than 35 years ago, Bernadette Panzella ’81 (then a hairstylist) and Susan Karten ’83 (then a secretary) both made their way to Brooklyn Law School, taking classes in the evenings after working during the day. Each built a successful law practice of her own, and they met for the first time in 2008 to join forces in a landmark case: They took on the male-dominated construction industry, representing the families of a pair of construction workers tragically killed in a crane collapse on 91st Street in Manhattan. In August 2015, after the longest civil trial in New York’s history, the powerhouse duo won more than $96 million in damages for their clients.

    The second civil trial began in September 2014 after several delays and a mistrial, and it continued for more than 119 days. The jury of four women and two men heard testimony from 68 witnesses and saw 600 exhibits. They also heard from five experts on metallurgy, a Buildings Department official who had ordered that the crane be repaired, and the crane’s owner before awarding the families of the two victims more than $48.3 million for economic losses and pain and suffering, and another $24 million in punitive damages to each family. 

    The accident occurred because of a defective weld in the crane’s turntable. Panzella and Karten argued that the owner should have taken the crane out of service when it was deemed faulty instead of using an unqualified Chinese company to repair the equipment to save money. The attorneys view the awarded damages as a warning to bad actors in the construction industry.

    “This jury said you can no longer get away with putting faulty and defective equipment up at construction sites,” Karten said. “If you do, you’re going to get punished, and it’s not going to be a slap on the wrist.”

    Both highly successful plaintiff’s attorneys in their own right before teaming up to take on the “King of Cranes,” Panzella and Karten started their legal careers in rather unusual ways. Panzella grew up in a traditional Italian family on Staten Island. Her father was a postal worker and her mother was a champion for the developmentally disabled, serving on the committee that closed the infamous Willowbrook State Developmental Center in New York. “My brother was developmentally disabled and my mother fought hard for him,” she said. Panzella wanted to fight the good fight, too, and told her father she would like to go to college. “My father said, ‘No, you’re too good looking, you’ll get married—it’s a waste of time,’” she recalled.

    Instead, she went to beauty school and began a career as a hairstylist. But she didn’t give up on her education. She went to community college in Staten Island while raising her two children. Following her time at Richmond College of Staten Island, she received her master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University and then pursued a law degree at Brooklyn Law School in its evening program, where she was part of the Moot Court Honor Society. She started her own practice following graduation, handling torts and product liability cases, including the $38 million wrongful death case against Eurocopter and the $5 million Chrysler Neon steering wheel defect case, in which Professor Richard Farrell was appointed special master.

    Meanwhile, Susan Karten, the daughter of a homemaker and a candy store owner turned professor, went to college at night at Marymount and worked during the day as an assistant to the Hon. Jacob D. Fuchsberg during his time as a practicing torts attorney. When Fuchsberg was appointed to the New York State Court of Appeals, Karten recalled, “He said, ‘Susan, you should either continue in politics or go to law school.’ I decided on law school.”

    Karten worked for Fuchsberg as his executive assistant while attending the Law School part time; she was even given permission to attend Albany Law School when he was working in the state capital. “I am forever grateful to Dean Glasser for allowing me to have such a non-orthodox arrangement,” said Karten. She joined Fuchsberg as an associate when he retired to private practice in 1983.

    In 1987, Karten started a firm—Castro, Weiner & Karten—with two colleagues, and then in 2009 formed Susan M. Karten & Associates. Over her extensive career, Karten has handled a number of high-profile cases, including that of Dr. Veronica Prego, who developed AIDS when she was stuck with a contaminated needle at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. As a result, hospitals across the country have taken safety measures to prevent needlestick injuries to healthcare workers. Karten also represented victims’ families in the arson fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx in 1990, and the family of Anthony Baez in a wrongful-death suit against the New York City Police Department.

    Panzella and Karten might have continued to pursue their separate career paths had a crane on East 91st Street not collapsed into the street on May 30, 2008. That day Karten was vacationing in Florida with her family when she received a tearful phone call from her receptionist, whose cousin, Ramadan Kurtaj, an Albanian immigrant, had been killed at the construction site. “I literally hung up the phone and flew back to New York and went with her family back to Kosovo with Ramadan’s body,” said Karten.

    Meanwhile, Panzella had been contacted by Donald R. Leo, the father of the deceased crane operator, Donald C. Leo. “I had represented Don before,” she said. “He was a fireman, and a crane operator himself, and when his son died, he called me. He knew that this did not have to happen.”

    Since 2008, the pair have been tirelessly fighting for the victims’ families against big players—high-profile firms with dozens of associates and endless resources. It took more than $1.2 million of their own money and years of dedicated work to get the case to verdict. “We sacrificed a lot, but there was so much at stake,” said Panzella.

    Both women credit the Law School with much of their success, and they remain connected to it. Karten served as president of the Brooklyn Law School Alumni Association between 2002 and 2004. Panzella’s son, Robert Schacht ’99, and nephew, Jeremy Panzella ’06, also graduated from the Law School. “BLS prepared us well to win this case,” Karten said. “The families will never get their sons back, but there was justice.”