Hartwell Speedway May Be Responsible for Recent Spectator Death and Injuries

Most of the risks associated with auto racing are confined to the track, and even the danger to the drivers has decreased over the years as racecar and racetrack designs have improved. However, due to the high speeds involved in the sport, racing accidents still produce enormous amounts of force. When this force is not well distributed and contained, it can pose a danger not just to the drivers but to the spectators as well.

This is what happened at the Hartwell Speedway in Hart County on July 3rd, 2021. A car struck the track’s concrete wall with enough force to launch itself up and through the chain link fence at the top, killing one spectator and injuring two others. The deceased was later identified as 57-year-old Paul Ballenger. Those injured were a man in his thirties and a 9-year-old child. The driver was not hurt.

Police and the State Fire Marshall’s Office are currently investigating the crash, a process which will include checking the track’s permitting and building code compliance.

Georgia’s Courts Have a Better Record of Protecting Spectators Than Most

What responsibilities sports venues, players, organizers, and promoters have for their spectators’ safety is a contentious legal question. While it used to be common for spectators to be awarded compensation after being struck by stray vehicle debris, pucks, balls, bats, etc., court rulings have shifted after the 1950s to favor venues over spectators.

The argument is usually that these kinds of accidents are an assumed risk of attending sporting events in person. Other types of businesses have tried to use similar arguments to avoid liability, however, with limited success. More often, the presence of a known danger means that the business owner, not the patron, has an increased responsibility to protect against that danger.

Historically, Georgia courts have put tighter limits on the “assumed risk” defense than other states, at least when it comes to sporting venue accidents, giving injured spectators a better chance at compensation. In fact, in 1997, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a racing spectator who was struck and injured by a car that was being towed through the racetrack pit area.

Depending on the exact circumstances of the Hartwell crash, Ballenger’s family and the injured survivors may well have a case.

Sports Venues Have a Responsibility to Adhere to Standard Safety Practices

When determining whether a sports venue, player, or related business is responsible for a spectator’s injury, the key factor is usually whether the party in question did anything out of the ordinary that made the situation extra dangerous.

For example, a racetrack is very unlikely to be found negligent in premises liability just for letting people watch a race in person at all. It’s somewhat dangerous, but also standard practice. On the other hand, the venue would almost certainly be considered negligent if they let people stand on the track itself during a race. That would be wildly dangerous and completely out of the ordinary.

In the case of the Hartwell crash, one of the big questions is whether the walls and fences used to protect the spectators were up to the typical industry standard. The introduction of Steel and Foam Energy Reducing (SAFER) racetrack barriers, which can cushion a great deal of the force of a crash, have made competitions like NASCAR much safer in recent years, but Hartwell Speedway is a small clay track which might not be equipped with them.

The conduct of the driver and his team should also be examined. He reportedly lost control of the steering wheel before the car struck the wall. That might simply be a momentary slip in a challenging sport, but if he took an abnormal risk in his maneuvering, or if the car was altered or maintained in a way that made it more difficult to control, that could also qualify as negligence.

If you are Paul Ballenger’s next of kin, or if you have been injured as a spectator at an auto race in Georgia, reach out to The Stoddard Firm to learn more about your rights.

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