Maker of seat-belt in Dale Earnhardt car sues NASCAR

Wednesday, February 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson sued NASCAR on Wednesday, claiming stock car racing's governing organization wrongly blamed Dale Earnhardt's death on his company's seat belt.

Simpson, former owner of Simpson Performance Products Inc., filed the defamation of character suit four days before NASCAR's biggest event, the Daytona 500. He is seeking more than $8.5 million in damages, attorney Robert 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.

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

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

Chuck Davies, CEO for Simpson Performance Products, said in a statement Tuesday that the company would not be a party to the suit.

``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,'' he said.

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,'' he said.

No hearing has been set.

NASCAR has 23 days to respond, once it is served notice of the suit, Horn said.

``Our corporate policy is we never comment on pending or active litigation,'' NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said Wednesday.

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 concluded that several forces, including the angle of impact, the speed of Earnhardt's car and the torn seat belt caused 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. NASCAR 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.