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Carnell appreciates intellectual challenges of construction law

Kent Carnell - Lawton & Cates SC (Staff Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Kent Carnell ventured into construction law by accident.

He’d been practicing law for about a decade when he got involved in one of the biggest products liability cases to be filed in Dane County Circuit Court, representing two workers who were severely injured during the construction of St. Mary’s Hospital in the early 1980s.

The accident occurred when a climbing-tower crane collapsed during construction. The crane operator fell several stories within the cab as it crashed. Its impact caused debris to fly, which hit another worker who was in the building’s basement.

The case’s backdrop — how the crane maneuvered through the construction zone — fascinated Carnell, he said, as he’s always had an interest in how things work and why they sometimes fail.

After a seven-day trial, the case settled favorably to his clients, he said, and the crane’s design was likely changed to make it safer as a result of the incident.

Inspired by that accidental foray into construction law, Carnell said, he started taking on more cases in the practice area.

He’s drawn to construction law, he said, by “the intellectual challenge of figuring out what went wrong and why. How it should’ve been built in the first place. And how are you going to fix it now that you have this particular problem?”

The Daily Reporter: What do you consider your biggest career achievement to date and why?

Kent Carnell: I was one of five founders of Second Harvest Foodbank in Madison, which opened in 1986 and presently provides over 10 million pounds of food to food pantries and eating sites in southern Wisconsin.

TDR: What is the top legal issue construction firms need to be aware of today and why?

Carnell: Making sure they follow all the plans and pay attention to building codes, and not taking shortcuts either to complete the job sooner or to enhance their own profits. They also need to continually communicate with owners about the construction process and any problems they’re encountering.

TDR: What is one thing attorneys should know that they won’t learn in law school?

Carnell: You learn basic law in law school. But they don’t teach how to listen to your clients about their problems. More importantly, it’s a continual process of education in the field that you’re dealing with. In construction law, it’s engineering and construction processes, including electrical, plumbing, concrete, structural, etc. It’s a constant learning process — but that’s also what I think is fun about it.

TDR: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what career would you have chosen?

Carnell: I love to golf, so I think it would be fun to build golf courses.

TDR: Who are your heroes?

Carnell: The founders of my law firm, John Lawton and Dick Cates. John Lawton for his ability to establish labor laws that helped bring labor peace to both the public and private sectors in the state of Wisconsin and Dick Cates for his trial expertise and understanding of how to persuade juries.

TDR: Where would you like to live?

Carnell: I really like living in Madison, although for the winter months it would be nice to live in a warmer climate.

TDR: What is your definition of success?

Carnell: When you can accomplish a good result for a client.

TDR: What are your words to live by?

Carnell: Be straightforward with both clients and opposing lawyers.

TDR: What book is sitting on your nightstand?

Carnell: ‘Good to Great,’ by Jim Collins.

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