Kimberley Ultramarathon burn victims to sue race organiser

Model Turia Pitt, horrifically burned, will bring a civil suit against event's HK organiser

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 4:58am

Two runners injured in an ultra-marathon in a remote part of Western Australia plan to bring a multimillion-dollar civil action against the race's Hong Kong-based organisers.

The two women were left with serious and disfiguring injuries when a fire swept through the 100-kilometre foot race being staged in the Kimberley region in Australia's Outback, in September 2011.

Sydney model Turia Pitt, 24, now has to wear a compression suit covering her face, neck and body and lost four fingers and a thumb due to burns. Kate Sanderson, 36, had her left foot amputated.

Two other runners, Michael Hull and Martin Van Der Merwe, also plan to pursue civil action against RacingThePlanet, although both suffered less serious burns.

Last week Pitt and Sanderson received "act of grace" payments of A$450,000 (HK$3.6 million) from the West Australian government after an official inquiry in August urged the state to consider some form of financial compensation to help with the runners' ongoing treatment.

Despite a parliamentary inquiry finding that RacingThePlanet was not legally liable or to blame, those injured are still pressing ahead with civil action.

It was reported in the Australian media last week that Greg Walsh, a Sydney-based lawyer for the four competitors, intends to sue RacingThePlanet for more than A$10 million on Pitt's behalf alone. Pitt was among 11 runners who became trapped in a narrow gorge as bushfires - which police said had burned in the Kimberley region for up to a week - changed directions.

The three-day marathon was the second that the Sheung Wan-based company had organised in Western Australia. The route was similar to the first race, held in 2010.

RacingThePlanet chief executive Mary Gadams - who also sustained second-degree burns to her hands, arms and legs - said the inquiry's decision that RacingThePlanet was not to blame or legally liable for the competitors' injuries was a welcome one, yet her organisation deeply regretted the injuries that were suffered.

"Although legal action has been threatened, via the media, against RacingThePlanet by lawyers for injured competitors, no litigation has commenced against us," she said. "We are in no way liable for the injuries caused by what was a freak fire."

Gadams, a 48-year-old American who started her company in 2002 and has lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, earlier told the inquiry there was "no convenient villain" in the tragedy.

She also did not believe that her organisation's reputation had taken a hit because of the unwelcome publicity the incident had generated.

"RacingThePlanet has staged 35 events in remote locations over the past 10 years with more applications than it can accept," she said.

"Governments all over the world continue to contact us asking if we would consider staging an annual event in their country."