The air bag: Paul Walker death-crash court case raises big questions

Kristine Rodas, the widow of the man who died alongside Paul Walker in a car crash last year, is commencing legal action against Porsche. Why is this happening?
A Carrera GT similar to the car in Paul Walker’s fatal crash. Courtesy Newspress
A Carrera GT similar to the car in Paul Walker’s fatal crash. Courtesy Newspress

With the furore surrounding the death of the actor Paul Walker last year, many commentators seemed to overlook that another man died in the car crash. Walker was the passenger, while Roger Rodas was driving the Porsche Carrera GT when it veered off the road in Los Angeles, mounted a kerb, hit a tree, a lamp post and then another tree and burst into flames. Both men died within seconds of the impact.

Rodas was an experienced racing driver, but the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department report put the blame on excessive speed, claiming that the Porsche was being driven at more than 90mph (145kph) – a crazy speed for a built-up area, no matter what your skills as a driver might be. No fault was found to be with the car – not that there was much left of it.

This hasn’t prevented Roger’s widow, Kristine, from commencing legal action against Porsche. According to the Los Angeles Times, a suit has been filed stating that the car “malfunctioned”, causing the crash, and that the speed at the time was actually 55mph (89kph), contradicting the official police ­report.

Why is this happening?

America has become notoriously litigious in recent years – a culture of blame and huge financial payouts after lawsuits has resulted in a legal quagmire where nobody seems to be able to accept that they or their loved ones were in the wrong. It’s always somebody else’s fault and they’ll have to pay. Porsche has had its fingers burnt before now with the Carrera GT, after another widow sued the company (and others) when her husband was killed in one at the California Speedway in 2005.

The following year, Porsche contributed 8 per cent towards a $4.5 million (Dh16.5m) settlement. The driver, Ben Keaton, hit a concrete wall after swerving to avoid a slower-moving Ferrari that had emerged onto the track when it was unsafe to do so. Keaton and his passenger, Corey Rudl, died in the wreckage, and Rudl’s widow sued the venue, Keaton’s estate and Porsche in the San Diego Superior Court.

When Porsche settled, it did so without acknowledging any wrongdoing, still claiming that the Carrera GT was safe and fit for purpose. But what purpose does such a car serve these days? A beautiful, wild brute of a supercar, the Carrera GT resulted from a failed racing project and was built in limited numbers between 2004 and 2007, with 604 being sold in the United States. If the tough American legislators had deemed it unsafe, it wouldn’t have been sold there – it’s that simple.

I’ve never actually driven one. The very thought of it terrifies me, but not because of these fatalities – as soon as I saw the specification, I knew that it would be too much to handle at speed. With no driver aids, a lightweight body and 612hp going through the rear wheels only, it’s always been a car that needs to be treated with the utmost respect, like some four-wheeled rattlesnake. Provoke it and it will bite, often with catastrophic results.

But does that make it unsafe or not fit for purpose? Of course not. And a country in which guns are freely available should realise that every individual is accountable for their own actions – you race a high-performance car down an unsuitable road and anything can happen.

Should Porsche be held accountable for a car that left its factory nearly a decade ago? The court will eventually decide, but it’s worth asking a few questions before we make up our own minds:

How old were the tyres and what condition were they in? Was the driver aware of any faults in his car on the day of the accident? Was he distracted by something that led to the crash? Porsche cannot be expected to wield any control over these things and it’s quite possible that the case will be thrown out of court. But if you’re wondering why cars these days come with so many electronic driver aids that rob us of so much involvement, it’s cases like this that hold the answer.

khackett@thenational.ae

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Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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