Published December 4, 2013, Los Angeles Daily Journal – Few things in life are more tragic than an early, unexpected loss. While we understand that the belief is unsustainable, we nevertheless cling to the idea that death will only visit us at the end of a long and illustrious life. When it arrives early we feel cheated, as if an indiscernible right has been wrongfully taken from us.
This last week, our belief in all that is right was tested when actor Paul Walker was killed in a tragic car accident near Valencia, leaving behind a 15-year-old daughter. The 40-year-old actor is best known for his role in the “Fast and Furious” films — a series of films that ironically focused on the underground culture of illegal street racing.
The details of the event have become fairly well-known: Walker was hosting a fundraiser for his charity, Reach Out Worldwide, when his friend and business partner, Roger Rodas, asked him to go for a ride in his Porsche Carrera GT. Walker, a big car enthusiast, was ever so happy to oblige.
The trip should have been very ordinary. Both Walker and Rodas were racecar drivers, and they co-owned a high performance automotive business, Always Evolving, that built cars for speed. Walker’s daytime job was that of a Hollywood actor, and Rodas was a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, but their passions intersected in the boyish world of high performance cars. In an interview conducted this past May, Walker reported that one of his biggest frustrations in life was that he had not broken the 200 mile per hour barrier yet. He had only made it to 197.
While the results from the police investigation will not be available for some time, it appears that Rodas lost control of the Carrera GT on a sweeping 45 mile per hour turn and slid into a light pole, causing the car to all but disintegrate and burst into flames. The accident happened just blocks from the charity event, drawing horrified party-goers to the scene. In one of the most heart-breaking moments, Rodas’ 8-year-old son was reported as trying to rescue his father from the burning wreckage.
Officials will only say that “speed was a factor,” but this is likely a monumental understatement. The accident occurred on Hercules Street in Santa Clarita, a street that runs through an isolated business park and forms a 1-mile loop. The California Highway Patrol reports that the area is a known hot spot for street racing, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged that this was not the area’s first speed-related crash. Locals refer to the area as “Hercules curve.”
One theory is that that Rodas was “drifting” the car around the corner when he lost control, as the back end of the car slid out. The $450,000 Carrera GT, with its 612 horsepower, is widely known as being difficult to control. According to Autoweek, the Carrera GT is “a difficult car to drive for even professionals.”
Whatever the cause, the event is likely to ignite a firestorm of litigation. The loss of any life is undeniably tragic, but the loss of a high wage earner like Walker creates a special set of considerations.
If Rodas was indeed speeding, a claim by Walker’s estate will surely follow. Rodas will likely have an automobile policy, and perhaps even an umbrella policy, but the limits of insurance will likely be grossly insufficient to cover the value of Walker’s claim. Walker is reported to have earned $39 million from his role in the “Fast and Furious” films, and at the age of 40 his estate will likely attempt to recover a long stream of the celebrity’s future earnings.
Then there’s the city of Santa Clarita, who could find itself the recipient of a claim for knowing that the area is used for illegal street racing, and failing to take reasonable steps to prevent it. If the city truly understood that the loop was a commonly used for weekend racing (when the surrounding businesses were closed), it could have a serious problem — even with the limitations of governmental immunity.
But perhaps the biggest target is Porsche itself. While high performance cars are meant to be just that, this does not absolve the manufacturer of responsibility for creating cars that are reasonably safe. And there are serious questions about whether the Carrera GT meets this standard.
To the surprise of many, this would not be the first time that Porsche has had to answer for deaths caused by its Carrera GT. In 2005, two individuals were killed in a Carrera GT while racing at the Fontana Speedway in Southern California. The driver was traveling at 145 miles per hour when he swerved to avoid a slower moving car; the back end of the car slid out and the Porsche hit a wall, killing both occupants.
Porsche was sued (along with the other driver and the race track) under the theory that the Carrera GT was too difficult a car to handle even for professional drivers. In particular, the plaintiff claimed that Porsche’s failure to equip the car with electronic stability control, or what Porsche calls PSM, was a design defect. After two Porsche engineers provided conflicting testimony as to why the car did not come with stability control (one testified that the chassis could not handle it, the other testified that customers did not want it), Porsche participated in a $4.5 million global settlement.
And that was not the first time that Porsche had been held accountable for building a dangerous high performance car. In 1983, a jury awarded an estate $2.5 million when a father was killed in a Porsche 911 turbo, under the theory that the car’s turbo-lag and over-steer made it too difficult for the average driver to handle.
As race car drivers, Walker and Rodas tested the limits of physics and engineering; now their estates will likely test the limits of tort liability in an effort to recover for their enormous loss. Whatever the outcome, financial recovery will never be enough to cover the loss suffered by the minor children left behind. They would surely give it all back for just one more day of being able to play ball, or one more school performance the fathers could attend. As for Walker? Well, his terribly ironic quote says it all: “If one day the speed kills me, do not cry because I was smiling.”