The owner of a company that installed flawed temporary seating for the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington told ESPN on Wednesday that he kept quiet about the case at the request of the National Football League, and a lawyer for seven fans who have sued the league says the situation amounts to witness tampering.
Scott Suprina, owner of Seating Solutions, has been repeatedly blamed for the seating fiasco during testimony in the nine-day trial, and although he didn’t make a personal appearance in court, his videotaped deposition was among the first pieces of evidence introduced during the proceedings.
But on Wednesday, as jurors began deliberating, ESPN.com published a report in which Suprina laid some of the blame on tardiness by the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys. Those comments led the plaintiffs’ lawyer to request that Suprina, who is believed to live in the New York area, be subpoenaed to testify in the case in Dallas federal court.
“We’d like to have an order that Mr. Suprina appear as quickly as possible so we can get to the bottom of this,” plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Avenatti said after the jury left the room Wednesday. “Our position is that, if true, the defense in this case tampered with a witness. Mr. Suprina was one of the very first witnesses called by the defense in this case, and he is one of the witnesses the defense has relied upon primarily in their effort to defeat the fraud claims in this case.”
U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn declined to immediately issue a subpoena or to stop the jury from deliberating. But she said she would review the matter and, even after the jury renders a verdict, withhold final judgment until more is known about what information Suprina may have withheld.
Thad Behrens, lead counsel for the NFL, questioned the timing of the publication of Suprina’s comments, just as the case was being given to the jury.
“It has some very interesting statements that align very closely with the closing argument we heard from the other side,” Behrens told Lynn after the plaintiffs filed a motion for an emergency subpoena.
In the ESPN.com article, Suprina says the NFL “encouraged me not to tell the whole story. They reinforced what my position should be before the deposition.”
Suprina blamed the problems on several factors. He said five of his workers failed background checks required to enter the stadium. He also cited delays by the Cowboys, who have a contractual relationship with Seating Solutions, to get permits for the seating.
He kept quiet because it was his understanding that one of his companies would get back its license to put NFL logos on furniture, he said, but that didn’t happen.
Suprina told The Dallas Morning News that the reaction in court Wednesday was a misunderstanding of the ESPN story. He said pressure from the NFL persuaded him to keep quiet publicly for years and not vigorously defend his reputation. But he said he didn’t change any testimony to please the league.
“I’d be happy to go down there and tell more of the truth,” he told the News about a possible subpoena. “I frankly believe it’s a waste of the ticket holders’ time. I don’t have any secrets. I don’t know of anything that would help their case.”
Lynn also determined that punitive damages won’t be part of whatever decision the jury reaches in the case over the botched installation of 13,000 temporary seats at the Super Bowl.
The jury of seven women and one man heard closing arguments Wednesday morning, then selected a foreman and broke for lunch shortly after noon with the intent of returning to begin deliberations just after 1 p.m. A verdict is expected soon, officials on both sides said.
Lynn decided late Tuesday that punitive damages — awarded to punish parties in a lawsuit — should not be part of the deliberations, lawyers on both sides said Wednesday.
That decision is important because it could set a precedent. A similar lawsuit against the NFL involving roughly 200 unsatisfied fans has also been filed in Dallas federal court.
The case has put a national spotlight on the NFL’s internal decision-making and its relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who testified for 21/2 hours Tuesday.
Disputing the view
The seven fans allege that the NFL broke its contract by selling them tickets for seats that either couldn’t be used or had obstructed views of Super Bowl XLV between Green Bay and Pittsburgh.
Two plaintiffs also allege that the NFL committed fraud by allowing the botched installation of 13,000 temporary seats to continue until just hours before the game on Feb. 6, 2011, despite months of warning signs that the seating wasn’t being installed according to league standards. City officials declared 1,200 seats unsafe.
In all, about 3,200 fans were affected by the seat debacle, including some who were moved to other seats and others who missed the game entirely.
Jones’ testimony was tense and colorful as the Cowboys owner often offered answers far beyond what was called for in the line of questioning.
Last week, the jury watched a videotaped deposition of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who took responsibility for the seating fiasco.
The tension continued Wednesday during closing arguments, when Behrens sought to discredit the claims of the plaintiffs — particularly the two fans who allege fraud — by saying they exaggerated the poor quality of their seats.
Behrens questioned photos taken by members of the traveling party of Dean Hoffman, a lifelong Packers fan. One photograph appeared to show a severely obstructed view of the field.
But, Behrens said, “Mr. Hoffman … sat through the first half, left briefly at halftime, returned for the second half and never told anyone, ‘I can’t see 50 yards of the field.’ He never told an usher or anybody. This is a gentleman who paid $15,000 for his bucket list to see the Packers win the Super Bowl, and he never said a word to anyone. He just filed a lawsuit accusing the NFL of fraud.”
Behrens said the other person alleging fraud, Steelers fan Robert Fortune, also didn’t complain to a stadium official.
During final rebuttal in his closing argument, Avenatti lashed out at Behrens for his characterization of the two men.
“Before you call a man a liar, shouldn’t you know?” Avenatti said.
Of Hoffman, Avenatti told the jury: “This is a 69-year-old man. He’s never filed a lawsuit in his life. And they want you to believe he’s just making it up. It’s disgusting. It’s disgraceful.”
Hoffman and Fortune are seeking about $40,000 between them in reimbursement for costs associated with the trip to Arlington, a spokeswoman in Avenatti’s office said.
The other five plaintiffs are seeking various sums: Bruce Ibe, $8,757; Ken Laffin, $9,455; David Wanta, $7,305; Rebecca Burgwin, $35,922.75; and Jason McLear, $11,546.10.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796