Ex-jockey Gary Birzer, paralyzed after a racing accident in West Virginia two years ago, has agreed to settle a $10 million lawsuit against the California-based Jockeys Guild and two former officials who allowed his health insurance to lapse.
Neither Detroit attorney Paul Koczkur nor the guild would disclose the financial terms of the settlement, which is protected by a confidentiality agreement. But Koczkur said Tuesday his client was happy with the outcome.
The deal was reached Friday in Los Angeles.
The settlement includes five years of health insurance coverage for Birzer and his family, as well as a public role with the guild, advocating for other disabled jockeys.
Longtime sports agent Dwight Manley, the new national manager of the guild, met Birzer for the first time during the settlement talks. Manley said he was deeply moved by the rider, whose only concern was for his wife and toddler.
“Nothing can give him back the use of his arms and legs,” Manley said. But the settlement allows Birzer to resume therapy, and the restoration of his relationship with the guild is priceless to both sides, Manley said.
Birzer did not immediately respond to a telephone message Tuesday.
There are more than 50 permanently disabled jockeys, and an advocate like Birzer will help raise public awareness of their plight, Manley said. It also may help ensure that more protections are put in place.
“We know that this is going to happen again, that there will be paralyzed jockeys. But what happened to him, sort of being outcast or left alone, was unconscionable and not right,” Manley said.
Birzer was on Lil Bit of Rouge in July 2004 when the thoroughbred made her move in the first turn at Mountaineer Racetrack & Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va. The 110-pound jockey was thrown headfirst into the dirt at 40 mph, his neck broken, his body paralyzed from the chest down.
Birzer thought the guild would pay for his medical care and ongoing therapy but learned too late that a $1 million insurance policy he’d bought for $10 per race was inexplicably allowed to lapse.
He and wife Amy, who now live in Cincinnati, were forced to get by on Medicaid and charity.
Birzer sued the guild last year, also targeting former President L. Wayne Gertmenian and former Chief Operating Officer Albert Fiss, both of whom have since been ousted.
Gertmenian did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Fiss could not immediately be reached.
The guild is now broke, and the $1 million coverage the jockeys once enjoyed has yet to be reinstated.
Manley said he has loaned the guild $500,000 to pay past insurance claims, but rebuilding the union’s finances will take time.
Both West Virginia tracks, Mountaineer and the Charles Town Races & Slots _ now carry $1 million policies for their jockeys to make sure they are covered in catastrophic cases.
Manley said some tracks are following suit, but many are still carrying only $100,000 on their riders.
Birzer’s case could eventually be the catalyst for change.
In May, members of a subcommittee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee vowed to push for a bill that would ensure jockeys are fairly compensated when injured.
Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., have held three hearings on this issue and advocate a federal solution, perhaps incorporating some money from simulcasting.
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