Former sprint-car racer John Westbrook filed a lawsuit seeking financial compensation for injuries that confined him to a wheelchair he suffered during an accident at nationally renowned dirt-car track, Williams Grove Speedway. As the adequacy of Williams Grove’s safety measures were a key point of contention, the trial featured testimony of racetrack safety expert witnesses who provided opinions regarding the conditions of the track in order to aid jurors in assigning liability for Westbrook’s injuries.
Racetrack Expert Witness Defends Track Safety Measures
On the last day of trial, a racetrack safety expert witness testified that the Williams Grove’s safety procedures were sufficient and satisfied the industry standards of dirt-track racing. Martyn Thake, a designer and inspector of racetracks, was called by Williams Grove to as an expert witness on racing safety. During his expert testimony, Thake made a point to counter two of Westbrook’s arguments against the racetrack:
- Williams Grove did not provide adequate instruction on neck safety equipment: Earlier in the trial, an expert witness in head and neck safety testified on behalf of Westbrook by explaining that a HANS head and neck restraint would have prevented the injury to his neck. Westbrook then argued that Williams Grove failed in its duty to recommend HANS restraints, but Mr. Thake pointed out that the racetrack did recommend equipment listed as “neck collar,” which, in the parlance of the dirt-track industry, includes the HANS system.
- Williams Grove should have had a “catch fence” to prevent Westbrook’s car from falling down the incline: Westbrook’s vehicle flipped between two turns on the Williams Grove track, and rolled down an incline, with the resulting damage causing his paralysis. Central to Westbrook’s argument was the claim that a catch fence – a protective fence above the racetrack wall – would have stopped his car and should have been installed for safety reasons. Mr. Thake explained that a standard catch fence is not designed to catch cars, but to prevent debris from flying out of the racetrack onto spectators – thus having one would not have impacted Westbrook’s crash.
During his expert testimony, Mr. Thake explained to the jury that there are no written regulations for sprint-car racetracks, requiring inspectors to apply a set of industry accepted guidelines for safety. Going further, Mr. Thake commented that in his opinion, supported by years of building and inspecting tracks, the Williams Grove Speedway operated under acceptable conditions and provided adequate safety recommendations to its drivers. Based on the industry standard for sprint-car racing, Mr. Thake’s expert opinion supported William Grove’s position that its racetrack was safe and that it had provided sufficient safety precaution to Westbrook prior to his race.
Expert Witness Testimony Proves a Non-Factor
Last week, the Cumberland County, North Carolina jury determined Williams Grove Speedway was not liable to Westbrook because the former driver had signed a waiver of liability prior to taking part in the race. Racetracks like Williams Grove require all drivers to sign a waiver-release that clears the track of legal liability for injuries sustained during accidents, and the Cumberland Country jurors determined that the document precluded Westbrook from recovering financial damages.
Although the decision did not rely on the testimony by racetrack safety expert witnesses, the analysis of the Williams Grove Speedway provided during trial will no doubt catch the eye of other tracks concerned over scrutiny on safety measures. Ultimately, the strength of racetrack waivers proved sufficient to the trial jury, but should an appeals court disagree, the testimony of racetrack expert witnesses may become a factor in Westbrook’s lawsuit.