Blown Engine – Drag Racer Dies During a Track Rental Session; Racetrack Faced with Triable Issues, Possible Punitive Damages (NJ)

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Cruz v. ATCO Raceway, Inc. (New Jersey)
(trial court disposition)

Jose Cruz was involved a fiery crash that occurred at the drag racing strip owned by the defendant.  The accident was caused by a “catastrophic engine failure,” and Jose was severely burned.  Although he managed to escape the car and walk away from the wreck, he ultimately died at the hospital.  A lawsuit was filed by Jose’s widow on her own behalf and on behalf of Jose’s estate, alleging negligence, negligence per se, wrongful death, and survivorship.  The lawsuit also sought punitive damages.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and the New Jersey District Court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part.

The incident occurred during a “private rental day” during which Jose and several other drivers were participating in timed drag racing runs at the defendant’s racetrack. According to the evidence presented, fewer employees work at the racetrack on “rental days” as compared to public “race days,” and many of those employees perform more than one job.  For example, on “race days,” two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are stationed at the finish line.  However, on “rental days” (including the day of the incident), two EMTS are stationed on the starting line, and they perform “double duty” (one also operates the time clock, while the other also operates the starting light and hands out time slips).

The track manager on duty on the day of the incident was responsible for inspecting the race cars and collecting the Technical Inspection Forms completed by the drivers, which include a broad release and waiver of liability.  New Jersey Regulations mandate that a technical and safety inspection be performed prior to racing activities, and if any vehicle does not pass inspection, the vehicle is supposed to be barred from the racing activities.  There was conflicting testimony and documentary evidence as to whether the track manager inspected the decedent’s car on the day of the incident.

The evidence also showed that the decedent’s National Hod Rod Association (NHRA) license was expired on the day of the incident, and that a valid license was required to participate in the type of racing occurring at the time of the incident (i.e. a license is required in order to make a “sub-10 second” timed run on the drag strip).

The defendant argued that the claims were barred by the waiver and release signed by the decedent prior to the incident.  However, decedent’s widow contended that Jose did not sign the release and the signature on the form was not his signature.  The Court also noted that the release was not dated, which was material because Jose had raced at the facility on numerous prior occasions.  Therefore, the Court held that the issue of whether Jose waived his rights and released his claims was a jury question.  The facility attempted to side-step the issue by relying on the widow’s testimony that she signed the release for her husband because her husband was illiterate.  However, the Court stated that such evidence did not resolve the issue because there was no indication that the widow read the document to Jose or that Jose agreed to its terms.

With regard to the negligence allegations, the plaintiff asserted that the defendant (1) failed to provide adequate emergency medical response; (2) failed to properly inspect Jose’ vehicle; and (3) allowed Jose to race even though he did not have a valid license to race.  The Court agreed that a jury could reasonably conclude that failing to have an ambulance immediately available and requiring the EMTs to perform other job functions caused Jose’s injuries to be more severe than they otherwise would have been.  However, with regard to the failure to inspect the vehicle and allowing Jose to participate without a license, the Court held that “there [was] no record evidence that these failures proximately caused the accident.”  Therefore, the Court denied summary judgment as to the first theory of negligence liability, but granted summary judgment as to the other two theories of negligence liability.

With regard to the wrongful death claim, the defendant argued that plaintiff provided no financial information regarding calculable economic losses arising from Jose’s death.  However, plaintiff countered by referring to her answers to written discovery, listing Jose’s employment as a custodian and his hourly wage.  Additionally, the plaintiff also cited that she had provided copies of tax records showing Jose’s gross income.  The Court determined that such evidence was sufficient to support a jury finding as to the value of Jose’s expected future financial contributions.  As such, the court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the wrongful death claim.

Defendant also sought summary judgment regarding the issue of punitive damages.  The Court had previously rejected the defendant’s motion to dismiss the claim for punitive damages.  The Court also denied defendant’s request for summary on the issue.  The Court explained that plaintiff’s evidence could support a finding that the defendant deliberately ignored the New Jersey safety regulations governing drag strips and that it knew that failing to follow the safety precautions could result in severe injury or death.  According to the Court, the placement and use of the EMTs and the use of an older model ambulance which delayed arrival at the scene could reasonable support a jury finding that the defendant’s acts were “wanton and willful.”

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