NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Rolf Max Sternberg, a longtime local attorney and community advocate, died Thursday at home at the age of 67.
Sternberg grew up in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. He was a first-generation American, with his parents surviving World War II. He attended Syracuse University before teaching elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y. He would later earn a master's degree in teaching from New York University and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. Sternberg then moved back to Hoosick Falls to open his own law practice.
Sternberg and his late wife, Patricia Barr, launched another law firm in Bennington in the early 1980s. The firm, Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Lawrence & Silver, is the largest firm in southern Vermont and has won several landmark cases. Sternberg practiced law in both Hoosick Falls and Bennington until he fell ill with esophageal cancer last year.
Sternberg and his Hoosick Falls law partner Ed Gorman founded Civicure, a nonprofit corp. dedicated to the revitalization of the Hoosick area "through active stewardship of our rich heritage and rural environs and the art inspired by them." Gorman said Sternberg hoped to build a rural arts center that would showcase local, rural artists.
"This was a way of trying to showcase some of that and build off of that and use the history of the area to try and build some kind of an economic engine for the community," Gorman said.
The group has also given out grants and awards to people in the Hoosick Community for home improvement work, according to Gorman.
Sternberg focused his law work on real estate, estate planning and litigation. Gorman said Sternberg's commitment was to his hometown in his legal work.
"His focus was on helping. He, long ago, moved to Bennington, yet he continued on with his practice here, not because he made money on it, but because he really enjoyed staying connected to the community here," Gorman said. "The fact that he continued to practice in New York for 30-plus years is a testament to that."
Sternberg "championed the underdog" in his legal work, and in his community, Gorman said. "He thought Hoosick Falls was an underdog. That's why he put so much time and effort into the community over the years," Gorman said.
Peter Lawrence, an attorney and partner in Sternberg's Bennington firm, said several of Sternberg's cases set important legal precedents. One case, involving the late Luella Wilson, clarified the legal theory of negligent entrustment, in which a person gives a potentially dangerous instrument to another and should have known not to. Another case made clear that it is corporate liability when someone slips and falls because of debris at a grocery store, not the liability of the worker responsible for cleaning the floor.
In another case, Sternberg proved negligence on the part of a health clinic that provided medication to a patient that made the patient drowsy, resulting in a crash that killed three people.
"Rolf fought heroically, very hard, to show that there was negligence there and that that was not the right practice," Lawrence said. "If he felt that there was an injustice happening and somebody without power, without resources, was being pushed around by companies, insurance companies, corporations, people with substantial resources, he was willing to fight and fight and fight to make sure that those people were protected."