The case Lasar v. Ford Motor Company was proceeding just fine last October, until Ohio attorney Lawrence Sutter delivered his opening statement.
Sutter, who was in Montana as Ford’s hired gun to help a local attorney defend the company, first suggested that Steven Lasar was drunk when he wrecked his Ranger five years ago.
“[Lasar] spent the day playing pool, visiting some local establishments,” Sutter said. “Somewhere around 10 that night he made the decision to drive himself home.”
Then Sutter, an award-winning trial lawyer, implied that Lasar was thrown from the truck not because of a defective door latch, as alleged in the lawsuit, but because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. “Lasar was what we call a free-floating body,” Sutter said. “His body was banting [sic] about inside the car as it was rolling over.”
With those two quick sentences, Sutter violated a state law that says the focus in product liability cases should be on the design of the product, not the conduct of the people involved, and simultaneously broke a court order to not bring up the issue of alcohol. Based on the testimony of Lasar’s friends and a highway patrolman, alcohol had been ruled out as factor in the accident before the trial even started.
Since Sutter had thusly “poisoned” the jury against Lasar, Federal District Court Judge Don Molloy called a mistrial.
Things got worse for Sutter when he made two more mistakes during a hearing held several days later. First, he claimed that by “local establishments” he meant “restaurants,” not “bars.” That wordplay irritated Molloy.
“You went over the edge on purpose,” Molloy said. “You shouldn’t have done it. Now the question is what do I do about this?”
Sutter asked not to be removed from the case, arguing that his dismissal would be unfair to Ford. This after Sutter testified that his entire law firm, barely eight months old, and its entire staff of 35, depended on defending the automaker around the country.
Then Molloy dropped a bombshell and asked Sutter to explain why he hadn’t admitted—on his application to temporarily practice law in Montana—to having had prior altercations with a judge.
“You didn’t want me to know,” Molloy said. “When it’s not there, it seems to me like you’re trying to hide something.”
Sutter said he hadn’t actually been held in contempt of court in Ohio, only thrown in jail twice by a judge who didn’t like him. Molloy’s irritation was compounded.
Sutter’s “sophistry,” Molloy wrote in an order dated Jan. 2 of this year, could be characterized as mertiri splendide, or a magnificent lie. Then Molloy unloaded a $61,397.50 fine on Sutter and found him in contempt of court, a ruling that should follow him everywhere his Ford takes him.