JULY 1, 2005
When is a fan not a fan
The Formula 1 world may think that the problems at the United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis are now blowing over, but it does not look that way in other respects, as the notification of legal actions are now beginning to arrive in the mailboxes of those involved. And in this respect the FIA World Council ruling will have little or no effect, as the federation must answer the charges along with all other parties involved.
There are believed to be at least three class action lawsuits underway on behalf of the fans who were unhappy with the six-car United States Grand Prix. This is not entirely surprising given how upset some of the crowd were but this does not mean that sport can allow itself to be held hostage by opportunistic lawyers who wish to take advantage of the situation to make money. While it is quite understandable that some F1 fans would like their money back and perhaps even their expenses to be repaid, claims for punitive damages are not something which real race fans should be wishing on this troubled sport. Formula 1 has done itself sufficient damage already.
Another point which needs to be made is that every serious race fan knows when one goes to an event there may be chance that there will be technical problems with the cars; there may be accidents and there may even be climatic interruptions. In US racing, particularly, the weather can cause trouble as oval races never take place in the rain.
Thus claiming that F1's failure to put on a show is worthy of punitive damages is, in our opinion, tenuous and wrong even if the behaviour of some of those involved was not worthy of the sport.
The legal situation at the moment is very complicated because each of the class actions is different and not all are aimed at the same people. We have seen one which has been lodged at the Indianapolis division of the United States District Court. This is a complaint against the FIA, FOM, Bridgestone, Michelin, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, BMW Williams, Panasonic Toyota, Red Bull Racing, Sauber Petronas, Lucky Strike BAR Honda, West McLaren and Mild Seven Renault F1.
Oddly, Bridgestone is included but Minardi and Jordan are not.
The plaintiffs in this case (there are currently only three) allege that they were induced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for travel accommodations, meals and tickets to come from all over the world to witness the United States GP and that "the defendants conspired and acted together to provide advertising and promotion" which indicated that there would be 10 teams competing. The argument is that the commitment made by the competitors created "an implied contract to provide the race as advertised" and that the defendants breached this agreement.
The plaintiffs are demanding damages to compensate them for their losses. They claim that the actions of the defendants were taken "with reckless disregard of the rights of plaintiffs", were "grossly negligent" and were "malicious and intentional" and are therefore claiming punitive damages and asking for a jury trial.
It remains to be seen whether any of the charges will be upheld by the US court - with only three plaintiffs it is hard to argue that hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent. At the same time it is going to be hard for the plaintiffs to argue that the teams and Michelin were "grossly negligent" in that their argument was based on safety and there is plenty of documented evidence to show that all manner of different solutions were put forward but rejected.
However such actions are extremely worrying for all concerned because American courts have in the past produced extraordinary decisions on a fairly regular basis. The US being a highly litigious country, there is no shortage of lawyers looking to make money, and apparently no shortage of greedy people happy to exploit the situation.
However, the sport must accept that it has annoyed a lot people and that fair claims for expenses, particularly from those who travelled internationally and at great expense, must be addressed.
There is always the possibility that actions could be settled out of court but the reality is that such deals will only encourage others to come forward and it is not in the interest of anyone involved to settle anything in this way.
William Bock, a lawyer representing another group of plaintiffs, says that the FIA ruling that Michelin and the teams must compensate the spectators will not stop legal actions against the FIA, FOM and Indianapolis.
"The supposed guardians of the sport owe a duty to the fans to be part of the solution," Bock said in a public statement. "It's not enough to point a finger at Michelin and just say: 'Fix it'."
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