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Expert's report: Earnhardt died from head-whip

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information         Apr 12, 2001    

Expert’s report: Earnhardt died from head-whip

  • A court-appointed expert brought in as a part of a settlement with The Orlando Sentinel determined from autopsy photos that late race-car driver Dale Earnhardt did not die from a seat-belt failure.

In the culmination of a controversial battle over access to autopsy records, a court-appointed expert said Dale Earnhardt died from the violent head-whipping action that often occurs when race car drivers’ heads are not fully restrained. The report, based on the NASCAR driver’s autopsy records which state officials had tried to keep from the media, contradicts the findings supported by NASCAR officials that Earnhardt’s death was caused by a faulty seatbelt.

The Orlando Sentinel requested the autopsy photos from the Volusia County medical examiner’s office after Earnhardt’s death on Feb. 18, but was forced to get permission from the court to have an expert view the photographs of Earnhardt’s autopsy, despite a state law that at the time made the records public.

Dr. Barry Meyers, a Duke University physician, issued his findings from autopsy photographs on April 10. Meyers concluded that Earnhardt did not die because his seatbelt failed, instead finding that the autopsy showed that “large inertial forces developed as the neck was stopping the forward motion of both the head and the helmet.”

These findings support the theory that the basilar skull fracture that killed Earnhardt was the result of a severe head-whip because his head was not restrained. Initial reports by Dr. Steve Bohannon, a NASCAR physician, had indicated that Earnhardt died from an impact with a steering wheel caused by a failed seat-belt.

The Orlando Sentinel and Earnhardt’s widow Teresa came to an agreement March 16 after she filed motions with a Volusia County court to prohibit the release of photos of her husband’s autopsy. The agreement allowed a court-appointed expert to view the photographs and the newspaper to ask the expert questions about the cause of death.

The Orlando Sentinel fought for access to the records in order to continue an investigation into NASCAR’s safety record that it had begun before Earnhardt’s death. The Sentinel ran a three-part series one week before Earnhardt’s death about how infrequently drivers use the Head and Neck Support (HANS) restraint device which is available to them. This safety device is designed to prevent the head-whip action that may have killed Earnhardt, according to Robert Hubbard, the device’s designer and a Michigan State University engineering professor.

After the Sentinel made its agreement with Earnhardt, the Florida legislature passed a law prohibiting access to autopsy photographs without a court order. The Sentinel and its sister-paper The South Florida Sun-Sentinel have challenged the constitutionality of the law.

(Earnhardt v. Volusia County Medical Examiner; Media Counsel: David Bralow, Tribune Company) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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