Douglas Suter’s Crusade to Make Schools Safer

The Columbus lawyer brings attention to dangers in the classroom

Published in 2011 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2011

In December 2003, Jennifer Bennett drove to Louisa Wright Elementary School to pick up her son from an after-school YMCA program. Upon entering the building, she was met with cries to call 911. A 290-pound folding table had just fallen onto her son, 6-year-old Jarod, hitting his head. He died in his mother’s arms.

The Bennett family sued the table’s manufacturer, the school district and the YMCA. Their lawyer, Douglas Suter—the father of two boys himself—says it was an unforgettable case.

“These particular school tables, this particular design, pretty much had been found to be defective back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, yet the manufacturers left them in the schools and out in the marketplace,” says Suter, a partner at Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, where he handles both employment and personal injury law. The case ended in a multimillion-dollar settlement, and, with the help of former state Rep. Tom Raga, a bill was introduced in hopes of preventing similar tragedies. “My law firm worked with the Bennett family to have Jarod’s Law enacted—which was the first-ever comprehensive school-safety legislation in the state of Ohio—that basically made the schools go look for potential safety hazards that the children may be exposed to,” Suter says.

His interest in law was sparked early on. “I grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, which, back at the time I was going to high school, was pretty much a steelwork town, similar to Pittsburgh,” he says. “Most of what I would call the movers and shakers in our community were the lawyers. And most people held them in very high regard. … I always looked up to lawyers, and that was before I really knew anything about practicing law.”

His time as an undergrad at West Liberty State College cemented his aspirations. A business major and pre-law minor, Suter participated in a yearlong internship at William E. Watson & Associates law firm in Wellsburg, W.Va. “At that point, I really got interested in law, and pretty much I was full speed ahead when I hit law school,” he says.

After graduating from Capital University Law School, Suter headed straight to Isaac Brant, where he’s been ever since. A large part of Suter’s practice is dedicated to employment matters, including discrimination, wage and hour, workplace safety, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration matters. He says his employment practice is unusual because it’s split nearly 50-50 between representing employers and employees. “I think,” he says, “you’re a better lawyer if you know both sides of the fence.”

In the past 10 years he’s garnered nearly $30 million for plaintiffs through jury verdicts, awards and settlements. In one of his larger settlements, he helped represent the family of an Ohio pilot named Roger Boromei. On Sept. 11, 2000, two planes crashed midair in Fort Pierce, Fla., killing both Boromei and the other pilot, a Saudi man named Ameer Bukhari. In a suit against several defendants, including the U.S. government, Suter helped argue that the air traffic controller was negligent “basically for instructing the two pilots to land at the same runway and then not keeping them separated.”

“One year later, on 9/11, they found the Saudi’s driver’s license in one of the rental cars that the 9/11 terrorists used,” Suter says, explaining that the Saudi pilot who died in 2000 may have had his identity stolen after that crash by someone affiliated with al-Qaida. The government settled the Boromei case for $3 million.

That case also led Suter to another way to help people. While in Florida, he met fishing charter captain and Vietnam veteran Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch, who launched Operation Open Arms, a Florida nonprofit dedicated to providing U.S. soldiers on leave with free services. Bunch came up with the idea after being approached by a soldier on leave from Afghanistan who wanted advice on where to fish, since he couldn’t afford a charter. “[Bunch] took him out on a free fishing charter, got the idea that we should be doing more for our service people,” says Suter. “[He] came to me after he started [the program] and we filed for not-for-profit status,” Suter says. “The rest is kind of history.”

The program has grown since Bunch scoured the Florida Gulf Coast looking for others who would be willing to offer their services to soldiers. Servicemen and servicewomen in the South Florida area are now able to find anything from a round of golf to limo rentals for airport transport, to car repair labor to gift cards for necessities—as well as mental health counseling for issues like post-traumatic stress disorder—all complimentary, thanks to donations from businesses and individuals.

As for Jarod’s Law? It was repealed in 2009, mostly because the financial burden of the inspections fell heavily on the school districts. “I was very disappointed to see Jarod’s Law repealed due to a handful of Ohio legislators … claiming Jarod’s Law was too expensive to comply with,” Suter says.

Still, he sees a silver lining. “[It] opened the eyes of many Ohio school administrators to dangers present in the schools,” he says. “Many Ohio school administrators are still using the Jarod’s Law model as their inspection protocol.”

But he has a warning for lawmakers. “School safety should be paramount,” he says, “and if an Ohio child dies or is severely injured due to a safety hazard in a school that would have been identified and eliminated as a result of the school-inspection program created by Jarod’s Law, you can be sure that I will be on the doorsteps of the one or two Ohio legislators who spearheaded the repeal of Jarod’s Law—along with the parents and the media—to see what they have to say for themselves.”

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