The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the decision of a Flathead County jury to force a Kalispell man to pay $1.7 million after he said he was a decorated U.S. Marine Corps officer in order to convince a well-known Whitefish businessman to invest in his business.
The high court’s April 28 opinion brings to a close an at-times bizarre legal drama.
Don Kaltschmidt, owner of the Don “K” auto dealership in Whitefish and chairman of the Montana Republican Party, filed a lawsuit against Laron D. Shannon in 2014 after learning that the man had lied about his military service and was mismanaging Kaltschmidt’s investment in a North Dakota-based oil and gas drilling rig-cleaning business.
For years, Shannon found ways to delay the trial, which had been set to take place on six different occasions. Each time Shannon said a medical emergency involving either him or an immediate family member necessitated the trial to be continued. He also filed for three different attorney substitutions, resulting in further delay. In 2018, Shannon was warned that his attempts to delay the case would no longer be tolerated, but in September of that year, just days before the trial was scheduled to begin, Shannon filed for bankruptcy in Virginia, further complicating the situation and forcing another continuance.
In April 2019, the case went to trial with Shannon representing himself. Days before it began, Shannon provided the court with hundreds of pages of documents that he said proved he served in the military — documents that Kaltschmidt had been trying to find for years. But it was determined that the documents were not legitimate and thus could not be entered as evidence.
Partway through the first day of the district court trial, Shannon announced that he was experiencing a medical episode and requested an ambulance. Medics inspected Shannon in the courtroom out of the presence of the jury, but Shannon demanded to be taken to the hospital. Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison informed Shannon that if he left the courtroom, the case would move forward without him. Despite the warning, Shannon was taken to the hospital. The trial proceeded.
The following day, a jury sided with Kaltschmidt. He was awarded $224,000 for actual damages — just shy of the $250,000 he invested in Oilfield Warriors back in 2014 — and $1.5 million for punitive damages.
Shannon filed a motion to overturn the jury’s decision, alleging that the district court acted improperly by not considering the documents he filed as evidence and allowing the trial to move forward without him, among other issues. The high court disagreed.
“After review of the record, we conclude the District Court exercised considerable patience with Shannon, accommodating multiple requests for extensions of time and granting leeway in light of his pro se status,” the justices wrote. “After the passage of years, and upon commencement of the long-awaited trial, there was little more the District Court could do, in light of Kaltschmidt’s right to a trial, but finish the matter after providing clear notice to Shannon it would do so. We conclude there was no abuse of discretion or violation of law in doing so.”
Shannon met Kaltschmidt in 2014 and convinced the Whitefish business owner to invest in his oilfield rig-cleaning company. Kaltschmidt gave him $250,000 for a quarter of the company. The ownership increased to 30% soon after. In the spring of 2014, Kaltschmidt learned Shannon had spent $175,000 in two months but had not actually cleaned anything. Later, Kaltschmidt discovered that Shannon had formed two other oilfield companies and had lied about his military service. Kaltschmidt quickly moved to freeze the company’s assets.
When he won his case in 2019, Kaltschmidt, who served in the Marine Corps, said it was unlikely he would ever see a penny of the money, but a payout was never the purpose of the lawsuit.
“When someone infiltrates this community of veterans, it’s a violation of our code … We earned the right to be called Marines, and when someone who has not earned that right (calls themselves a Marine), you feel violated,” he said. “This lawsuit was not about me. It was about making sure Shannon didn’t do this again.”