Maker of seat belt files suit

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Simpson said all he wanted was an apology. Now he's taking NASCAR to court.

The former owner of Simpson Performance Products sued NASCAR on Wednesday, claiming it wrongly blamed his company's seat belt for Dale Earnhardt's death a year ago.

He said he would not have filed the suit had NASCAR apologized.

''It was not a money issue. It was just an apology,'' said Simpson, who filed an $8.5 million defamation of character suit in Marion County Superior Court four days before NASCAR's biggest event, the Daytona 500.

''That's what we tried to get (Tuesday). We went all day long. And that was not going to happen,'' he said.

Now it's too late, said attorney Robert Horn, who also is seeking an unspecified amount from NASCAR for damage to Simpson's reputation.

''We're at a different level now. Before we filed this suit, we touched every base and took every opportunity to resolve this, and they wouldn't do it,'' Horn said.

''An apology would have restored Bill's reputation. ... They refused to do that, and so now the issue is, you've got to pay for what you've done.''

In a statement, NASCAR said: ''The Bill Simpson lawsuit is totally without merit. We will vigorously defend ourselves against his false allegations. NASCAR will continue to focus its efforts on safety, working with members of the NASCAR industry, including Simpson Performance Products, Inc.''

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, was killed in a crash on the last lap of last year's Daytona 500. In a report Aug. 21, NASCAR said a torn seat belt manufactured by Simpson Performance Products was connected with the fatality.

Simpson later resigned as a consultant for the company he founded and eventually sold.

''Our contention is that if Simpson belts are properly mounted, they won't fail,'' Horn said. ''The truth in this case is that that belt did not fail because of any defect in the belt, that the belt failed because it was improperly mounted in Dale Earnhardt's car.''

Horn said NASCAR has 23 days to respond, once it is served notice of the suit. No hearing has been set.

Chuck Davies, chief executive officer for Simpson Performance Products, issued a statement Tuesday saying that the company would not be a party to the lawsuit.

''We have been working cooperatively with NASCAR for the past several months on ways to improve driver safety, to support NASCAR's efforts on building strong safety programs and to contribute valuable input to the process,'' Davies said. ''We believe our energy is best spent working together to avoid tragic incidents in the future.''

The company is a leading manufacturer of safety equipment, including restraint systems, helmets and fire retardant uniforms.

Horn said Simpson also is seeking a restraining order to force NASCAR ''to maintain the integrity of the belt.''

''We want the judge to order NASCAR not to test the belt, not to destroy the belt, not to affect the condition of the belt in any way. If the judge enters that order, that would be the next step,'' he said.

Simpson, a former driver who has been in the safety equipment business since 1958, said he received several death threats after NASCAR's announcement of the seat-belt problem.

A six-month investigation by NASCAR and independent experts came to the conclusion that several forces, including the angle of impact, the speed of his car and the torn seat belt combined to cause the skull fracture from which Earnhardt died.

Simpson, a longtime friend of Earnhardt, has said he had warned the driver that his belts were improperly installed. Earnhardt sat lower in his driving seat than most drivers. The NASCAR report, however, said the separation of the belt was ''not caused by driver adjustment.''

Team owner Richard Childress has refuted Simpson's statements about having warned Earnhardt that his belts had not been installed safely.

Mark Martin, who still uses Simpson products in both his car and his 10-year-old son's car, said he understood why Simpson filed the suit.

''It's been very hard on his business and I don't think that's fair at all,'' Martin said. ''Everyone lost on that, but it was hard on Bill both personally and professionally.

''I never got the impression that NASCAR blamed the seat belt, but Bill felt differently. I just feel real, real bad for Bill because he's done so much for safety in our sport.''

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