David Buanno was enjoying a warm August night of racing in the pits at Fonda Speedway when a wheel flew off a passing race car and hit him.
It broke his neck and left him a near-quadriplegic. The 69-year-old Fort Johnson resident defied the odds at Albany Medical Center and survived the injuries. Now, he and his wife are taking legal action against the village of Fonda, the county Industrial Development Agency, the Montgomery County Agricultural Society and the county itself, preparing to seek monetary damages for his injuries.
“He’ll never get his life back the way it was,” said Cynthia LaFave, Buanno’s attorney, “but this sort of lawsuit is the only way to make his new life better.”
On behalf of David and Linda Buanno, LaFave filed a notice of claim in Montgomery County Court early last month. It’s not the actual lawsuit, which she said will be filed in several months, but is a necessary step to be taken before suing a municipal entity.
The broad aim of the notice of claim, according to Montgomery County Attorney Douglas Landon, is meant to “cover all the bases.”
“When bringing a lawsuit against municipalities,” he said, “you’re legally required to file a notice of claim within 90 days of the incident. I think [LaFave] was rushing and didn’t want to leave anything out.”
He said the fairgrounds and track are owned by the Agricultural Society, a not-for-profit group that has no affiliation with the county or the village.
When the actual lawsuit is filed, he said, the county and village will likely not be named.
“We’re still investigating,” LaFave said. “The defendants might change. There will certainly be a few more that aren’t municipalities.”
Those extra defendants, she said, will not include the owners of the car that flew apart.
“Cars break,” she said, “It’s a reality of the sport. It’s the track’s responsibility to keep people safe despite that.”
The case hinges on the safety devices surrounding the track at the speedway.
On Aug. 10, a 4-cylinder race car was circling the track at speed when it skidded sideways and lost a wheel. Witnesses said the wheel broke around the lug nuts and bounded toward the pits.
In a previous Gazette interview, John Grady Jr., who saw the accident, said the wheel flew over a protective fence by 10 feet and bounced again through the pits before striking Buanno as he stood unaware between two trailers far from the track.
“He never would have expected it,” Grady said at the time.
LaFave contends the incident was not a freak accident.
“It never would have happened had there been something between David and the tire,” she said.
While witnesses reported the wheel bounding over a fence, LaFave said it came through the gap cars use to get from the pits to the track.
Court paperwork blames negligence on the part of track operators for Buanno’s injuries, claiming they “failed to keep the Fonda Speedway in a reasonably safe condition for the protection of both participants and spectators.”
For years, Fonda Speedway, along with many other racing venues, operated under the general understanding that there are certain inherent risks involved with cars hurtling around a track in close proximity to a crowd of onlookers. Buanno arguably understood that risk, being an experienced racer himself. According to his brother Peter, Buanno won several races at the speedway back in 1971 and was a regular at the track throughout his life.
LaFave said Buanno’s understanding of risk is no excuse, saying the area was open to the public and thus should have been kept safe.
She refused to comment on how much money Buanno will be seeking, saying only that the amount should cover medical bills and compensate the family for pain and suffering.
Buanno is making a better than expected recovery. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but LaFave said he has the use of his shoulders and limited use of his hands.
Agricultural Society President Richard Kennedy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.