Factors Involved in Motorsport Accident Litigation

TASA ID: 2998

Motor racing is dangerous. In our day-to-day life we attempt to install rules and regulations to avoid accidents from happening. Examples of this are highway speed limits and traffic signals, building regulations and OSHA construction rules.

Sport is different. We want our competitors to strive to perform to the best of their abilities and to push the limits of their equipment.  This inevitably results in those limits being exceeded, either by over-striving, contact, or equipment malfunction.  Sport, therefore, is approached differently. The "accident" is the starting point for those responsible for safeguarding those involved: competitors, officials, support staff, and spectators.

Motor sport is particularly dangerous as it involves equipment with a high mass or weight, traveling at high speed. A footballer at full speed may trip and fall a yard or so. A vehicle at high speed will travel the length of the football field and more, taking out most of what is in its path.

So track designers, builders, and operators must understand the forces involved and  be able to predict the consequences of loss of control, however caused and wherever they occur on the track, to the extent that it is possible to do so. To this end, a body of knowledge has been developed over the 100 years we have been racing automobiles and motorcycles to provide professionals in the field with the tools to put in place the necessary safety provisions. This knowledge is partly derived from empirical data, and some is based on the laws of physics governing the motion of objects, but much is based on the experience of what works.

This knowledge has been built up across the globe in individual countries, and by the sport's controlling body internationally. It has variations to suit the differing types of competition, and some of the knowledge is codified and available. Many of the critical rules and procedures are not made available to a general audience, and are reserved to those skilled and experienced in their interpretation and execution so that they are correctly applied. As with much in life, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

This lack of published standards makes for a difficult situation for attorneys and experts in cases involving motor sport accidents. As an expert witness, I draw on my thirty years of experience on four continents across a variety of types of motor sport, as well as my work with various standards, procedures and rules. From this I have distilled a knowledge of how facilities should be built and events conducted. Experts in other fields may rely on clearer defined formulae and procedures.

In motor sport there are two basic groups involved, Participants and Spectators. Participants are a group consisting of the competitors, their crew and supporters, officials, the media and emergency crews. These have in common a degree of acknowledgement that they are in a situation of greater risk than the Spectator. Obviously that risk is not equal, the competitor having the highest and his sponsors and supporters the lowest, and in recognition of that, the participants sign a "waiver." This "waiver" has been developed by the insurance industry and is used in almost a common form around the US and across the world. It is inevitably raised when an accident has arisen at an event as proof that the injured party, if a participant, somehow waived any and all rights to sue for damages. This is not correct. The participants have an expectation that although they acknowledge that they are going to be in an area of risk, there is in place the level of safety commensurate with that risk.

For competitors that means that rules are in place as to how the vehicle and facility are built, and how the event is run. In the event of a loss of control, it means that there will be provision of adequate run-off, or that walls are located in the correct manner with suitable softening to reduce the result of impact, and that an appropriate emergency response is in hand.

Officials, emergency workers and media should expect to be properly located behind the correctly built barriers and fences, with the right equipment to do their job. Pit crews should be able to work, safe in the knowledge that they are not at risk of being hit, either by working behind a barrier such as a pit wall, or by speed limits and other procedures. Those supporters associated with competitors should be restricted to areas behind the correct barriers and fences, and again kept from being exposed to high speed vehicles in pit and paddock areas.

The other group, the Spectators, have done nothing more than paid their money to watch the event, and have a right and expectation to go home in the same condition as they arrived. These must have the highest level of protection, and warning signs or announcements that racing is dangerous cannot take the place of the correct barriers and fences.

These barriers and fences are the most obvious feature of motor sport facilities and are the subject of the most litigation. To state the obvious, they need to be designed and built to stop the heaviest vehicle at its maximum speed. In addition, the fence needs to protect spectators and participants from flying objects. The manner of achieving these safety goals is not necessarily proscribed, but there are accepted methods of constructing these that facility designers, builders, and owners should implement.

In addition to the physical aspects of a facility, there are the procedures by which the event is managed. These too have been developed over time to reduce the likelihood of accidents, and to put in place the people, equipment, communications and processes for responding in a timely fashion to an accident. These necessarily are established to reflect the degree of risk associated with the type and scale of the event. Any facility must have an Emergency Action Plan, and the staff trained and practiced in its implementation. Training is essential for all those with responsibility for managing the event, at whatever level, and that training recorded. Proper means of communication must be in place to reflect the speed with which accidents will occur, and speed with which it is necessary to respond, with a chain of command in place to take control. The lack of these proper operating procedures accounts for as many injuries and fatalities as do unsafe facilities.

It is unfortunate that in the United States, there is a lack of knowledge by facility owners and operators that such rules and procedures exist. Facilities are built and operated without reference to the correct designs or procedures, and often no effort is made to obtain the advice of professionals that would allow dangerous situations to be avoided and accidents prevented or their consequences reduced.

Motor sport safety experts who specialize in motor sport standards, procedures, rules, safety, and venues are able to assist an attorney to evaluate whether there is a case to be made or defended, and should be engaged as soon as possible in the proceeding to ensure the correct pleadings or defense is made. Experts in this field can further assist with framing the critical points for discovery and interrogatories and evaluating the information provided, as well as the standing of the opposition experts. Finally, there are depositions to be analyzed and given, leading eventually to a report or opinion. Motor sport is unlike anything most attorneys will have encountered, and the expert can be invaluable in providing the understanding of the background and context in which the sport is operated and managed.  

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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