01/16/2006 1:00AM

Paralyzed rider sues Mountaineer


Gary Birzer, the jockey who was partially paralyzed in a riding accident at Mountaineer Park in July 2004, has sued Mountaineer Park in West Virginia state court, Birzer's lawyer said on Monday.

The lawsuit alleges that Mountaineer officials "knew, or should have known, that the racing surface was uneven," according to the lawyer, Paul Koczkur, who is based in Detroit. The suit, filed last week, seeks unspecified damages for Birzer's medical bills and lost income, an amount that Koczkur estimated at "anywhere from $5 million to $25 million."

The lawsuit is the second Birzer has filed seeking damages from the accident, which became a rallying cry for many riders who have been critical of their insurance coverage at racetracks and served as a catalyst for management change at the Jockeys' Guild. Late last year, Birzer filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles District Court against the guild and its former management, alleging that the guild did not inform its members that it had failed to renew a catastrophic-insurance policy in 2002 that would have covered riders for up to $1 million in medical bills. Birzer was a member of the guild. Last November, the guild fired the organization's chief executive, L. Wayne Gertmenian, and his management group, Matrix Capital Associates, partly in response to the decision not to renew the catastrophic-injury policy.

Late last week, the guild's current management said it planned to ask the court to add Mountaineer Park as a "third-party defendant" in Birzer's lawsuit against the organization. The guild's request to bring Mountaineer Park and its parent company into the lawsuit is designed to shift the responsibility for Birzer's accident and the payment of his medical bills from the guild to Mountaineer, according to Darrell Haire, the guild's interim national manager.

"When a jockey is injured at the track, we expect the track to cover 100 percent of the medical expenses as well as other related damages," Haire said.

Parties to the lawsuit are scheduled to meet with the judge on Monday to consider the request and other issues relating to the lawsuit, lawyers said.

Mountaineer Park officials did not return calls requesting comment on the lawsuits.

At the time of Birzer's accident, Mountaineer Park carried an insurance policy covering jockeys for up to $100,000 in medical bills. Late in December, Mountaineer Park increased its accident coverage to $1 million.