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Court upholds raceway lawsuit

Dead man’s family awarded $2.8 million

An appeals court judge on Thursday upheld a $2.8 million judgment for the family of a man who died in 2006 after falling on a crumbling step at Spokane Raceway Park.

In an unrelated case, the state Court of Appeals Division III also upheld a contempt charge against former raceway owner Orville Moe, who had failed to turn over documents in a timely manner in the lawsuit filed by creditors of the track that is now owned by Spokane County.

The judgment upheld Thursday against the track’s former managers stemmed from an incident on Aug. 26, 2006, in which 59-year-old Charles Pierce fell at the racetrack when a concrete step crumbled under his foot. Pierce fell down several steps and remained on life support for 23 days before a decision was made to withdraw it.

According to court records, James Tice, successor to Moe as general manager of Washington Motorsports Limited Partnership, knew that the steep concrete steps in the raceway’s grandstands were beginning to crumble. The track was later purchased by Spokane County, which is not named in the suit.

Tice “had (the steps) cleaned before each racing event, using a fire hose to wash the crumpled concrete out of the stands,” according to court records.

After a bench trial, Superior Court Judge Annette Plese ruled that the track owners “negligently failed to maintain its premises” and awarded Pierce’s wife $2 million and each of Pierce’s three daughters $200,000. Plese also awarded the family $216,317 for medical bills and $50,000 for Pierce’s pain and suffering.

Attorneys representing track owners appealed on several grounds. They alleged that Plese exercised “judicial bias” and violated the fairness doctrine.

Plese had noted during the trial “that even after Mr. Pierce’s fall and his injury, they didn’t close off the stairwell or even try to stop the public from using it that night. Instead, Mr. Tice testified that they cleaned up the mess and restarted the races and never closed off those stairs.”

But the appeals court decision, penned by Judge Kevin Korsmo – and concurred by Judges Stephen Brown and Dennis Sweeney – discounted each of the six claims made by the raceway owners’ attorneys and affirmed Plese’s ruling of damages.

Dan Huntington, who represented the Pierces, said the judgment will come from the track’s receivership, which was fully insured.

In the unrelated Moe decision, Moe had challenged a $341,000 civil penalty levied by former Superior Court Judge Robert Austin for Moe’s failure to produce documents relating to a 2004 suit brought by his partners in Washington Motorsports Limited Partnership. That partnership eventually was placed in receivership.

Austin fined Moe $1,000 for each day he refused to turn over the documents.

Austin “showed extraordinary patience in dealing with Mr. Moe’s long-term recalcitrance,” Korsmo wrote. “The trial court did what it could, but apparently the sanctions were not so coercive that Mr. Moe felt like complying with them. If (Moe) now deems the $341,000 to be excessive, he can only blame himself.”