It’s been just over a year since Stephanie Baldridge died in a four-wheeler accident at Rednecks With Paychecks, a sprawling off-road rally held on private land about 80 miles north of Fort Worth.
The Crowley mother was there with her husband, Chuck, riding by his side when their utility vehicle rolled over and crushed her. A 6-foot drop-off onto a mud racetrack had come out of nowhere, Chuck Baldridge said.
Now, the widower is entangled in a legal battle with Rednecks With Paychecks over whether the small business — criticized by Baldridge’s attorneys as hosting a negligent, free-for-all party — should be held liable for Stephanie Baldridge’s death.
Put another way, should a release waiver signed by the Baldridges — one that required them to assume all risk, even death, to enter the property — protect Rednecks With Paychecks from a wrongful-death claim?
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An attorney for Chuck Baldridge believes he knows the answer.
“You cannot waive away deaths and injuries that are a result of extreme negligence — gross negligence — on the part of the landholder and event holder,” lawyer Brian Brisco said. “You can have legally binding waivers, but the waiver in this case cannot cover the type of claims we’re making.”
Neither attorneys for Rednecks With Paychecks nor owner Derrick Morse responded to requests for comment.
In January, Rednecks With Paychecks Off-Road Llc. filed a lawsuit against Chuck Baldridge, asking a Montague County judge to declare its release waiver valid, which would protect it from claims in Stephanie Baldridge’s death.
Baldridge and his attorneys countered with a lawsuit of their own this week, alleging gross negligence and outlining how Stephanie Baldridge died on March 12, 2016.
‘Suddenly and without warning’
The couple was riding across the property, going about 5 mph through thick mud, the lawsuit said.
“Suddenly and without warning,” their four-wheeler hit a drop-off where event officials had carved out a racetrack.
The four-wheeler nosedived to the ground and knocked Stephanie off her seat. It then rolled over and landed on top of her, crushing her “face-first into the mud,” the lawsuit said.
With the help of others, Chuck Baldridge moved the vehicle off his wife and removed clumps of thick mud from her nose and mouth. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t responsive.
Because of the muddy conditions, an all-terrain vehicle had to take her to an ambulance. By the time the ambulance got her to a helicopter, more than an hour had passed, the lawsuit said.
She died of internal bleeding on the way to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.
The lawsuit pinned Stephanie Baldridge’s death on two causes: a lack of warning signs ahead of the drop-off and a lack of access of quick emergency treatment.
The day before Baldridge’s death, another woman was injured when her ATV fell over the same drop-off, the lawsuit said.
“If the emergency helicopter had been on site,” the lawsuit said, “it is more likely than not that Stephanie would have made it to John Peter Smith Hospital in time to receive life-saving treatment.”
“Chuck and Stephanie went out there to have a good time,” said Joshua Ross, another attorney for Chuck Baldridge. “And Chuck came back without her and had to tell their daughter she would never see her mother again.”
Two other people have died in ATV accidents at the rallies: 12-year-old Nicholas Torres of Fort Worth in 2015 and 34-year-old Jeff Sawyer of Corinth last May.
At the spring rally this month, a man from the nearby Saint Jo area was struck in the face by a 15-pound rock and put in intensive care.
‘Free-for-all hellraising party’
The lawsuit this week mentioned those three incidents but also detailed a string of other allegations against the event, calling it a “rebellious, stand-alone free-for-all hellraising party.”
In 2013, the lawsuit said, 21 people were taken to hospitals by ambulance and four by helicopter. Multiple injuries at the event have resulted in “paralysis, amputations, and permanent disability.”
The lawsuit also included complaints about the event from social media.
One Facebook commenter, suggesting an age restriction, wrote “we saw kids as young as 3 and 4 riding 4wheelers without supervision and women riding atv’s with their new born babies strapped to them.”
Another online comment included in the lawsuit complained about a “MASSIVE underage drinking problem out there.”
The event made attempts to improve safety, imposing a ban on riding four-wheelers after dark in 2012 and making the event off limits to anyone under the age of 18 last year.
But alcohol consumption at the event remained excessive, the lawsuit said.
A WFAA-TV investigation last year — titled “Blood and Mud” — scrutinized, among other things, whether drunken driving at the event was properly policed.
“We saw adults everywhere guzzling beer and driving their ATVs fast, as well as children — riding with parents or driving on their own — crossing paths,” reporter Brett Shipp wrote. “Uniformed security officers and paramedics watched and hoped that nothing went wrong.”
Former Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham, whose off-duty deputies worked the event, acknowledged in the story that “probably 90 percent” of people driving vehicles at Rednecks With Paychecks were driving drunk. But Cunningham said that “there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“The law tells me I can’t,” he said. “It’s not a violation to drive intoxicated on your own property or private property.”
In its January court filing, Rednecks With Paychecks said the Baldridges were driving the four-wheeler after drinking alcohol, “despite posted warnings against operating the (four-wheeler) while under the influence of alcohol.”
Chuck Baldridge’s attorneys said he wasn’t intoxicated at the time of the crash.
The Rednecks With Paychecks filing also pointed out that the Baldridges weren’t wearing helmets or safety belts.
The filing sought a judgment declaring Rednecks With Paychecks clear of all liability “arising out of any injury or death” at their event.
‘You can’t waive gross negligence’
The waiver, though, won’t matter if a judge determines that Rednecks With Paychecks acted with gross negligence, according to two local attorneys.
“You can’t waive gross negligence,” said Steven Laird, a personal injury lawyer in Fort Worth. “Just because there’s a release doesn’t mean it’s enforceable.”
Trey Crawford, a Dallas personal injury lawyer, said the allegations seem strong enough to be considered gross negligence.
“If half of what they allege is true, then I think Rednecks With Paychecks has got massive problems that won’t be solved by the waiver,” Crawford said. “It’s the type of thing that can get a jury riled up.”
Crawford also found it unusual that Rednecks With Paychecks filed the first lawsuit in the case. The filing was likely in response to a letter sent by Baldridge’s attorneys putting the business on notice to expect claims in his wife’s death.
“They never reached out to me or my family,” Baldridge said in a statement through his attorneys. “They just moved on with their events and others continued to be hurt or killed.”