Court Confirms that Race Promoter Was Partially Responsible for Accident

Feb 1, 2008

A federal judge in the District of Kansas has delivered a partial victory to a plaintiff, who sued a racetrack owner and a race sponsor-promoter for negligence after he suffered an injury during a race.
Specifically, the court preserved judgment as a matter of law, finding “that the racer met his evidentiary burden to prove it was more probably true than not true that the racer sustained injuries caused by the promoter’s wanton conduct.” However, the court did reduce the jury’s award of noneconomic loss from $1,286,156.53 to $250,000.
Arthur C. Wagner, an accomplished motorcyclist, was competing in the “Formula USA 250K Team Challenge Endurance Race” at the Heartland Park racetrack in Topeka, Kansas. The track is owned by the City of Topeka, but the City assigned its rights to operate the track to Jayhawk Racing Properties, L.L.C., which in turn assigned its rights to Heartland Park.
On March 1, 2003, Heartland Park and SFX Entertainment, Inc. d/b/a Clear Channel Entertainment entered into a track rental agreement. This agreement authorized SFX to stage Formula USA Series and Championship Cup Series motorcycle races at the track from August 8 through 10, 2003.
During a race competition on August 8, 2003, Wagner’s motorcycle slid off the 2.5 mile track at what is known as Corner 10. The plaintiff crossed the grass and dirt “run-off” area outside Corner 10 and collided with an unprotected portion of a concrete barrier. The collision ignited a fire, which engulfed both plaintiff and the motorcycle. The plaintiff suffered severe injuries.
During this particular race, SFX placed corner workers in various stations along the track, which acted as flaggers to inform racers to proceed with caution or stop altogether in the event of an accident. They also served as emergency responders by helping downed racers if necessary. At the time of the plaintiff’s accident, the two corner workers assigned to Corner 10 were Randy Bodtke and his wife, Linda Bodtke, both of whom had been hired by SFX through a temporary employment services agency.
On August 2, 2005, the plaintiff filed suit in this federal court against SFX, Heartland Park, and Jayhawk, as well as SFX and Clear Channel Communications, Inc. The plaintiff’s complaint pleaded negligence and wanton conduct as his alternative theories of recovery. On October 27, 2006, after discovery had been completed, Federal Judge Kathryn H. Vratil granted partial summary judgment in favor of SFX and Heartland Park on the plaintiff’s ordinary negligence claims, based on a pre-race release executed by the plaintiff and each of his fellow competitors. Judge Vratil also granted summary judgment as to all of plaintiff’s claims against Jayhawk, SFX Entertainment, and Clear Channel, finding there was no basis for liability of any of the defendants. As a result, SFX and Heartland Park were the only two defendants at trial, with wanton conduct being the sole theory of recovery.
At trial, which began on July 30, 2007, the plaintiff claimed his injuries resulted from SFX’s and Heartland Park’s wanton failure to provide proper protection to race participants. While the jury rejected the racer’s wanton conduct claim against the owner, it awarded nearly $ 2.6 million in compensatory damages on the claims against the promoter. SFX filed a post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial, as well as a separate motion to alter or amend the judgment.
The court found that the racer met his evidentiary burden to prove “it was more probably true than not true” that the racer sustained injuries caused by the promoter’s wanton conduct.
Specifically, the court found that testimony regarding the movability of concrete barriers, the availability of padding, and the staffing of the area where the racer crashed was sufficient for the jury to return a verdict in the racer’s favor.
The court also determined that the promoter was not entitled to a new trial based on the court’s decision not to instruct the jury on comparative fault principles.
The racer was not at fault, according to the court. “Even though the boilerplate release form that the racer signed before the race purported to impose a duty to inspect on the racer, the court was unpersuaded that the mere failure by the racer to notify defendants their track was dangerously configured constituted ‘fault’ for purposes of Kan. Stat. Ann. § 60-258a. Granting in part the motion to alter or amend the judgment, the jury’s award of $1,286,156.53 in noneconomic loss was reduced to $250,000 pursuant to the mandate of Kan. Stat. Ann. § 60-19a02(d).
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Adam M. Crane, LEAD ATTORNEY, Crane Law Firm, L.L.C., Prairie Village, KS; David R. Cooper, Larry G. Pepperdine, Steven R. Fabert, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith-Topeka, Topeka, KS. (for defendants) Paul M. Croker, Richmond M. Enochs, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Wallace Saunders Austin Brown & Enochs Chtd. – OP, Overland Park, KS.


Articles in Current Issue