Wheelchair competitor and former athlete with Olympic records, Craig Blanchette, who was injured after the organizers of San Diego’s Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon changed the course in 2014, has been awarded $4 million after a jury ruled in his favor in a negligence case. The morning of the race, the organizers eliminated one lane on the track without telling racers. The downtown San Diego race route was altered near 11th Avenue and B Street, dropping the four lane course to three in that area.
Blanchette was going about 20 mph and quickly accelerating when his wheelchair slammed into a vehicle. He broke his collarbone and several ribs and tore his rotator cuff in the accident, which ended his career. “I hit the corner at about 40 miles per hour and launched me out of my chair,” Blanchette recalled.
Blanchette, who was born without legs, was a third place finisher at the 1,500-meter wheelchair race at the 1988 Olympics and an eight-time world champion, setting 21 different world records over the course of his career. Not shy when it comes to competition, the athlete has had a lifetime of experience training to be a renowned racer. But, that slight change of course four years ago took his career away. He said, “I was expecting curb-to-curb. I’ve done more than 800 races, gone around hundreds of curves, and never crashed in my life.”
It wasn’t until after filing the lawsuit that Blanchette and his attorneys learned the race organizer, Competitor Group Inc., narrowed the street just before the event. Competitor Group is a privately held sports marketing and management company based in Mira Mesa, San Diego, California. The company owns and operates over 40 large scale running, cycling, and triathlon events, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series.
While a map was created and distributed with the change, it was not shown directly to racers, according to Blanchette. Evidently, the city had told Competitor Group the company had to keep a lane open for traffic, and the group had to make a last-minute change in the course to accommodate the requirement. They argued Blanchette should have toured the course the day before to familiarize himself with it.
Competitor Group offered to settle the case before it went to trial for $30,000, but Blanchette did not accept. After a two-week trial, jurors determined that Competitor Group was grossly negligent for the athlete’s injuries and awarded him $3.625 million for past and future noneconomic losses including pain and suffering, and another $375,000 in economic damages.
“A jury of my peers validated what happened, and that was powerful,” the former athlete said of the verdict.
After undergoing multiple surgeries, Blanchette said his physicians told him he would not be able to train hard enough to resume an elite racing career. The former athlete lives in Washington State and is now a health coach who does some hand cycling whenever he gets a chance. He plans to use some of the money he was awarded for children at a wheelchair sports camp in Minnesota.