Man of Steel
William Caroselli was driven by one motivation: not to work in a mill
Published in 2007 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 25, 2007
Updated on March 8, 2016
William Caroselli was two years out of law school when he got an opportunity that would thrill some lawyers and scare the bejeezus out of others. He was working at McArdle Harrington, a personal injury and white-collar crime firm in western Pennsylvania, and assisting on the Pritchard v. Liggett & Myers cigarette trial. Senior partner Jim McArdle gave the opening argument but was sidelined with complications from emphysema brought on by smoking. Then the other senior partner, Jim McLaughlin, was hospitalized with a kidney infection.
Caroselli was up.
“I went to the judge and asked for a mistrial,” he recalls, “but the judge said, ‘No, I’ve seen you try a case. You know how. We’re going to proceed.’
“Every day after the trial I’d take the transcript to the hospital, and Jim McLaughlin and I would get Jim McArdle on the phone and discuss the case,” he says. “Then I’d go home and prepare for the next day.”
It was up to Caroselli to convince a jury that Otto Pritchard, a union carpenter from Pittsburgh who had smoked Chesterfields most of his life and lost a lung to cancer in his 50s, deserved compensation for his health problems. It wouldn’t be easy; at that time, in 1968, Big Tobacco had never lost a liability case.
Caroselli dug in. He didn’t win—the jury found no negligence on the part of the cigarette companies—but his work provided the basis for the successful tobacco litigation to come decades later. To this day trial lawyers from all over the country travel to his office to review his files from that case. And what he learned about discovery and corporate records, and himself, taught him that he could more than hold his own with the big boys.
Caroselli, now of Caroselli Beachler McTiernan & Conboy in Pittsburgh, grew up in the industrial town of North Braddock in southwestern Pennsylvania. His grandfathers were a coal miner and a steel worker, and his father a millwright in an ice cream factory. He knew few professionals, and fewer than 20 percent of his high school classmates went to college. “If you had aspirations, you became a teacher,” he says.
But he didn’t want that. And he didn’t want to spend his life in a mill. So Caroselli studied hard and earned a scholarship to Brown University, working shifts at U.S. Steel when he could to make ends meet. He also found time to play football. Undersized at 160 pounds—college press releases touted him as “the smallest interior lineman in the Ivy League for three years running”—he was known for his intensity. A recurring ankle problem took him off the field for his senior year, but the university recognized his leadership ability and asked him to coach freshman linebackers.
Coaching was good preparation for becoming a trial lawyer, he discovered. “With a team, you start with fundamentals and get into more esoteric and complex techniques,” he says. “That’s also what you do as a trial lawyer with a jury.”
Caroselli graduated in 1963 and wasn’t sure what to do next. When his former teammate Jack Mancuso, who today practices law in Reading, suggested law school, he scoffed. “I had never even known a lawyer,” he says. But Mancuso kept on him and eventually wore Caroselli down. He enrolled in Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law. It was an adjustment for him. “Law school was strictly academic … there were no sports or other activities that might help me assimilate,” he says. Still, he learned he liked it. While in school he landed a summer job at McArdle Harrington, which led to an associate position when he graduated.
By the early ’70s, Caroselli was itching to be his own boss. He had carved out a niche representing the type of folks he grew up around—blue-collar people—who had been injured on the job. “I felt that with my reputation as an advocate of railroaders and other working-class people it would be natural,” he says. In 1972, he, McArdle’s son and two others struck out on their own. Today, the firm has 17 lawyers.
Caroselli argued nearly 25 workers’ comp cases in front of the Pennsylvania Appellate Court during his firm’s first 10 years. In 1976, he became the first Pennsylvania lawyer to file an asbestos case, on behalf of two steelworkers, and shortly afterward he earned the largest verdict—close to $400,000—in western Pennsylvania for product liability.
The asbestos case was personal. His grandfather had worked in the boiler plant at the steel mill and was exposed to many pollutants, including asbestos. So was his father. They both survived their exposure but many in town didn’t.
“Having grown up in the Monangehela Valley, I knew many people whose lung conditions had been caused by their occupation,” he says. “Finally, we had discovered a substance that was one of the culprits.”
Caroselli has since gone on to become one of the nation’s leading lawyers for those injured by asbestos, and is one of 500 lawyers in the United States who have been elected to the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Caroselli lives with his wife, Dusty Elias Kirk, a partner with Pepper Hamilton, just eight miles from where he grew up. He has had a deep impact on Pennsylvania’s political scene as well. He has been a trustee of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association Political Action Committee since 1981 and currently serves as executive trustee.
Tom Previc, director of public affairs for the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, has seen his political acumen up close many times. “I’d see him walking down the hall of the Capitol trying to educate the elected officials on legislation,” he says. “I was always so impressed because over 80 percent of Pennsylvania legislators do not have a law degree. … Bill displayed amazing patience when trying to explain Pennsylvania law.”
Years later, when Previc needed to ramp up his knowledge of workers’ comp law, Caroselli was happy to educate him. “It really made me appreciate the work he and his firm have done,” Previc says.
Of course, there can be a downside to being active in public affairs. “If there’s a candidate on the other side who wins and decides not to be fair, they can make your life fairly miserable,” he says. Years ago, he didn’t support a certain local judge who ended up trouncing Caroselli’s candidate. It took a number of years for the two of them to work out their differences. “I didn’t get too many discretionary calls in that courtroom,” he says.
He may be a prominent person in Pennsylvania power circles—five years ago he was touted as one of the most important political figures in the state by a Harrisburg publication (“I was ranked above a senator—it was hilarious,” he says)—but he still doesn’t feel far removed from the young man desperate to escape the steel mill.
“I was in the middle of my class in law school,” he says with a shrug. “I was a mediocre athlete, but I was fortunate enough to play on good high school teams.”
Don’t buy it. He may wave off his accomplishments, but he wouldn’t be where he is today without a lot of hard work, talent and resolve.
Turns out he had steel in him all along.