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Earnhardt's widow says legal battle "horrifying"
( 2001-03-19 16:34 ) ()

Earnhardt's widow says legal battle "horrifying"

The widow of race car driver Dale Earnhardt on Sunday applauded the legal agreement ending a dispute over the racing legend's autopsy photos but said the court battle had been a nightmare.

"In spite of our success in the court-ordered mediation, I would like to say that other than the death of my husband, this has been the most horrifying and absolutely unnecessary experience of my life," Teressa Earnhardt said in a statement.

"We have been so caught up with these attacks in the courts that we have not had a moment to grieve for Dale or find comfort in our own family. It is impossible to imagine what we have gone through."

On Saturday the Orlando Sentinel said it and and the driver's widow had reached a deal under which a medical expert will be allowed to view the photos before they are permanently sealed.

The agreement follows court-ordered mediation to end the fight over the photos. In Florida, these are public records and the newspaper had wanted to view them as part of investigation into racing safety. Teressa Earnhardt had sought to keep them private, fearing they could end up as a macabre sight on the Internet.

Earnhardt died on Feb. 18 when his car hit the wall during the final lap of the Daytona 500 stock car race. Medical officials said the man known by race fans as "The Intimidator" died instantly from head injuries when his car hit a wall at 180 miles (288 km) per hour.


NASCAR officials said after the accident that Earnhardt's seat belt separated, sending him crashing into the steering wheel. The Volusia County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy said Earnhardt likely died of whiplash, an injury targeting the back of his head.

The newspaper, which says three other NASCAR drivers have died in crashes in the past nine months from fractures to the base of the skull, wants a medical expert to examine Earnhardt's autopsy photos to determine whether he also died of such injuries.

But days after Earnhardt's death, his widow sued Volusia County to prevent release of the autopsy photos, saying it would be an invasion of the family's privacy. Volusia County Circuit Judge Joseph Will granted a temporary injunction barring their release on the grounds that they were not newsworthy.

The Sentinel on Saturday said that within a week, a former circuit court judge who helped resolve the dispute would choose an expert in "automotive biomechanics" to review the autopsy photos and a videotape of the proceeding for perhaps 30 minutes before they are permanently sealed.

The expert would then produce a public report on the cause of the skull fracture that killed Earnhardt.

Teressa Earnhardt said the agreement protects her family's privacy by barring anyone other than the court-appointed biomechanical doctor from viewing the photos, limiting that expert's viewing to about 30 minutes, then sealing the images permanently.

She expressed support for an effort by Florida state lawmakers to make it a third-degree felony to publish such photos.

"I pray that the legislature moves quickly to enact this law, and hope that those of you who support it, will speak up now in its favor," said Earnhardt of the Florida measure backed by thousands of fans.

The arrangement binds only the Sentinel, the Earnhardts and other media interests that intervened in the case -- the Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV in Tampa, the Sentinel said. Anyone else can still request the photographs under the public records law and go to court.




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