Widow of Racecar Driver Can Pursue Track Owner

     (CN) – Atco Raceway must face claims related to a fatal fire that engulfed an uninspected racecar when its engine failed, a federal judge ruled.
     Jose Cruz had been using the quarter-mile drag strip at Atco Raceway for timed runs on Sept. 15, 2010, in Atco, N.J., when the engine of his 1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo race car burst into flames.
     Cruz had been completing his fifth solo run down the strip, when his car “suffered a catastrophic engine failure” and slammed into the concrete barriers several times before coming to rest just past the finish line, “fully engulfed with fire,” according to the police report.
     The raceway’s ambulance, which was parked near the starting line, would not immediately start, so Cruz was already out of the car with severe burns by the time it arrived at the crash.
     After receiving emergency medical treatment from Waterford Township emergency medical technicians, a helicopter brought Cruz to Cooper Hospital.
     His wife Evelyn claims Cruz “suffered” there for about 10 months until his death on July 12, 2011.
     Evelyn filed a federal complaint against the raceway for negligence and wrongful death, seeking punitive damages. She claims that the signature on Jose’s release and waiver of liability, assumption of risk, and indemnity agreement from the day of the crash is not her husband’s.
     Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas refused to dismiss the complaint or grant the raceway summary judgment on June 27.
     It is unclear whether the raceway actually or correctly inspected Cruz’s car prior to racing, as required by state regulations, the court found.
     “It is undisputed that the technical inspection form is missing many pieces of information, including Cruz’s drivers license number and issuing state, Cruz’s age, license plate number, as well as the vehicle year and make,” Irenas wrote. “Perhaps most importantly, the eight-item engine inspection checklist is completely blank.”
     The raceway also may have breached its state-law duty to have an ambulance immediately available to respond to the crash, the judgment states.
     “In a nutshell, defendant’s argument seems to be that only preventing the crash altogether could have prevented Jose Cruz’s death, and since defendant’s alleged negligence in failing to respond sooner could not possibly have prevented the crash, defendant cannot be liable,” Irenas wrote.
     “A reasonable juror could plausibly conclude from the factual allegations of the amended complaint that if the ambulance had reached Jose Cruz earlier – for example, while he was still strapped in the car – his burns would not have been as severe as they were, and therefore Jose Cruz would not have died,” Irenas added. “The allegations of the amended complaint do not necessarily require a reasonable juror to conclude that preventing the crash was the only way to prevent Jose Cruz’s death.”
     Evelyn meanwhile can amend her complaint to add claims for survivorship and negligence per se, based on violations of New Jersey Motor Vehicle Racetrack Regulations, according to the ruling.
     “The record evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, supports the reasonable conclusion that defendant deliberately ignored New Jersey safety regulations governing drag strips, and knew that failing to follow safety precautions could result in severe injury or death, but allowed Jose Cruz to race anyway,” Irenas wrote.

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