Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Spectators who were injured and the family of a man who was killed when a truck plowed into a crowd at a Mojave Desert off-road race sued Wednesday for wrongful death and negligence, blaming the driver, the race promoter and the federal government.
The lawsuits, filed in San Diego federal court, seek unspecified damages that could total millions of dollars, said Kate Gillespie, an attorney for the families.
Eight people were killed and at least a dozen injured when a modified pickup truck taking part in the "California 200" race slammed into spectators on Aug. 14, 2010 in the Lucerne Valley. The truck ended up on its roof.
Video showed fans standing within feet of the unfenced, unmarked sand track as trucks sped by.
Promoter Mojave Desert Racing's rules required fans to stay 100 feet away from the course, and its permit allowed no more than 300 spectators for the California 200. However, authorities believe hundreds more were at the free-admission event.
An internal review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land, concluded that the agency failed to adequately monitor the race or properly follow procedures in granting permits to the race promoters.
The permit never should have been granted, Gillespie said.
"This race was carelessly planned and disorganized with absolutely no concern for the safety of the people that make this event worth having - the spectators," she said in a statement.
"This is not cage fighting, this is not running with the bulls," she said in a telephone interview. "This is a family event where people camp and go to watch monster trucks ... and it turned out to be a horrible, horrible tragedy in the end."
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of the father of 24-year-old Zachary Freeman, who died. Personal injury suits were filed on behalf of three injured spectators: Travis Bonnar; his son, Jakob Bonnar, and daughter, Heather Haverkamp, and on behalf of Bonnar's wife, Jennifer. She was not struck but suffered emotional injuries, it said.
The lawsuits name the BLM; Mojave Desert Racing and its affiliated MDR Productions Inc., which organized and promoted the race; and the truck driver, Brett Sloppy.
The BLM had not seen the lawsuits and could not immediately comment, spokesman Doran Sanchez said.
A call to MDR's attorney, James La Chance, was not immediately returned.
Sloppy was wearing a helmet and harness. He received only minor bruises but later said in a television interview that he crawled out of his truck to see bodies everywhere and people screaming in panic.
"That was ... the worst sight in my life and I never want to see that again," he said.
His attorney, Ken Greenfield, said the crash was an accident and that his client was not negligent.
"Crashes occur all the time in off-road racing. The spectators, I'm sure, knew this," Greenfield said. Most of those killed were on the track or within 5 feet of it and some apparently had been drinking or using drugs, Greenfield said.
"That's not to detract from the fact that there have been deaths," he said. "But there were people standing where they never should have stood and they were allowed to stand there by the racing promoter and by the federal government."
He said that Sloppy's mother, Lynne Sloppy, sued the promoters and the BLM for negligence two weeks ago in San Diego federal court.
She suffered emotional distress from seeing the crash and from having to "walk over a war scene to rescue her son" from spectators who appeared to be threatening him, Greenfield said.