Will $1.2 Million Wolfgang Verdict Improve Racing Safety
Doug Wolfgang, one of the nation's top sprint car drivers, crashed during a practice session at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas on April 3, 1992. Wolfgang's alcohol-fueled sprint car inadvertently struck a tire located near the racing surface. He lost control of the car and it slammed into a retaining wall at a high rate of speed, causing a rupture in the fuel line. At impact, Wolfgang lost consciousness. While he lay motionless and helpless in his race car, it became surrounded by a fuel-fed fire, necessitating an immediate and effective emergency fire-fighting and rescue response. The response was not forthcoming, however, and despite the valiant efforts of numerous bystanders, the fire was not suppressed for nearly 15 minutes, eventually resulting in career-ending burn injuries to Wolfgang's legs and feet.
In April of 1994, Vic Bergman filed suit in federal court on behalf of Mr. Wolfgang against the owners and operators of Lakeside Speedway, as well as the World of Outlaws, Inc., the world leader in sprint car racing and fourth largest sanctioning body in auto racing. Plaintiff alleged defendants had assumed a non-delegable duty to Mr. Wolfgang to provide a sufficient number of adequately trained, clothed and equipped firefighters capable of effectively suppressing the type of fires associated with sprint car racing. The complaint also alleged defendants acted wantonly with reckless disregard toward the life, safety and health of Mr. Wolfgang by (1) delegating the duty to provide post-crash emergency fire-fighting to volunteer personnel without training, guidance or supervision; (2) relying upon volunteer, unsupervised personnel to gratuitously provide fire-fighting equipment; and (3) holding sprint car events at Lakeside Speedway without providing information to fire-fighting personnel about the peculiar risks and fire-fighting techniques associated with sprint car methanol fires.
Prior to trial, based on the Release and Waiver of Liability Agreement signed by Wolfgang before participating in the practice session, all of the negligence claims were dismissed, leaving only the claims of wanton conduct. Thus, at trial, Wolfgang had the enhanced burden of proving that defendants were guilty of wanton conduct.
Vic Bergman and Pat Hamilton tried the case for three weeks before the Honorable G. Thomas Van Bebber. The large ceremonial courtroom in the new Kansas City, Kansas Federal Courthouse was used in order to accommodate the sprint car that was plaintiff's principal exhibit. On August 25, 1995, after 16 hours of deliberations over 3 days, an eight person jury awarded Wolfgang $1,215,000 in damages, finding the defendants acted wantonly in failing to provide adequate fire protection for the practice session. Sixty percent of the fault was assessed against local racetrack ownership and forty percent against World of Outlaws.
The representation of Doug Wolfgang was one of the most worthwhile tasks our firm has ever undertaken. This was a case that is likely to have a salutary impact on all of automobile racing.
The most surprising and important aspect of the case was the revelation that there are no federal, state or industry-wide rules or regulations which control or even provide guidance for the amount or type of fire protection or emergency rescue which should be present at motor racing events of any type. This lack of racing industry standards needs to be addressed.
While many race tracks do an excellent job on their own, many neglect fire protection and rescue services and refuse to spend the necessary time and money to protect participants because they feel insulated from liability by the industry's Release and Waiver agreement. The problem is that as long as injured racing participants and their heirs are barred by releases from recovering for injuries or deaths' no matter how easily preventable there is no incentive to adopt rules and regulations and spend the time and money to ensure that adequate fire protection and rescue personnel are available for racing events. In the litigation, we proved that adequate fire protection can be provided at almost any racing facility in the United States at a reasonable and feasible cost. We put together a group of four experts in racing safety and fire protection engineering to draft minimum guidelines for fire safety and emergency rescue services for sprint car races.
The racing industry, which has demonstrated widespread disregard for the safety of race car drivers, has reacted with great indignation toward this case. Because the case received national media coverage in newspapers such as USA Today, was discussed on national sports television shows, and has received close coverage and analysis in the racing media and press, we believe the verdict will eventually lead to the creation of minimum standards for fire protection and rescue services for the betterment of motor racing.