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Promoter, off-roader sued in death of spectator at desert race

The mother of one of the eight who died at the California 200 in August in Lucerne Valley takes action against Mojave Desert Racing of South El Monte and racer Brett M. Sloppy.

January 05, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

The mother of a spectator killed in the California 200 desert off-road race in August filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the promoter and the off-roader whose pickup truck careened into a crowd along the Lucerne Valley racetrack, killing eight.

Doris S. Levinson's son, Andrew W. Therrien of Riverside, died in the crash after pushing his 3 1/2-year-old daughter to safety out of the path of the modified Ford Ranger.

"Her dad pushed her out of the way of this truck, and she saw her dad killed at the race.... She will have memories of this for the rest of her life,'' said attorney Kate Gillespie, who is representing Levinson and Therrien's daughter.

The legal action accuses Mojave Desert Racing of South El Monte of negligence for allowing spectator viewing areas along the racecourse that were "unreasonably dangerous.'' The racer who crashed, Brett M. Sloppy of San Marcos, was also named in the suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week.

Levinson's attorneys said they also expect to sue the Bureau of Land Management, which granted a permit for the California 200 nighttime race on federal land. Levinson has already filed an administrative claim against the BLM.

Gillespie's law firm, Los Angeles-based Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, is representing five other clients who were injured or had a family member who died in the California 200 tragedy, she said.

Mojave Desert Racing "and the Bureau of Land Management failed to protect the people they should have been looking out for,'' Gillespie said.

Representatives of Mojave Desert Racing could not be reached for comment.

In November, an internal BLM inquiry found that the agency failed to follow its own safety and regulatory procedures during the race in San Bernardino County.

In addition to the eight spectators who died, 10 were seriously injured when Sloppy lost control of his pickup after going airborne on a hill known as the "rock pile," where hundreds had gathered to watch the race. The truck rolled into the crowd, which had crept to within a few feet of the track, just minutes after the race began.

Witnesses and video of the race, one of more than 130 such events held annually on BLM-controlled land in the California desert, showed that Mojave Desert Racing failed to adhere to a requirement in its BLM permit to keep spectators 50 feet away from racing vehicles.

California Highway Patrol investigators said the truck came to rest less than 10 feet from the racecourse. The driver will not face charges related to the crash because it occurred during a "sanctioned" sporting event permitted by the BLM and did not involve public roadways, CHP officials have said.

However, the CHP is continuing its investigation and could ultimately hand over the agency's finding to local prosecutors, the state attorney general's office or the U.S. attorney's office.

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