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Lawsuit against Michael Waltrip Racing can go to trial, judge rules

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip owned half of Michael Waltrip Racing, a now-defunct Cornelius-based motorsports team.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip owned half of Michael Waltrip Racing, a now-defunct Cornelius-based motorsports team. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A pit crew member’s wrongful-firing lawsuit against Michael Waltrip Racing can go to trial, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

In a 69-page opinion, Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Louis Bledsoe III allowed all of former tire changer Brandon Hopkins’ termination claims to be heard by a jury. The judge also let some of Hopkins’ claims against Michael Waltrip Racing and a team official for conduct after his firing to proceed to trial.

While finding that a number of facts remain in dispute, Bledsoe dismissed Hopkins’ defamation claims and Michael Waltrip Racing’s counterclaims accusing Hopkins of stealing pit crew tools and misappropriating trade secrets about one of the tools.

Hopkins sued the now-defunct Cornelius-based motorsports team in 2015. He claims he was fired after taking a leave for surgery from a shoulder injury he suffered when he was hit by a car during a NASCAR race.

Hopkins helped Michael Waltrip Racing to its first Mechanix Wear Pit Crew of the Year Award in 2012.

He contends team officials “blacklisted” him after his surgery by falsely accusing him of stealing a pit gun used to remove lug nuts.

As a result, he lost an unpaid internship with another NASCAR Sprint Cup team and paid work with a NASCAR Truck Series team, Hopkins says in the lawsuit filed by Charlotte lawyer Joshua Van Kampen in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

Hopkins sued for damages, citing breach of contract, defamation, intentional interference with a contract and violating the N.C. blacklisting statute and federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act.

Regarding Wednesday’s ruling, Van Kampen said the judge found sufficient evidence “to discredit Michael Waltrip Racing’s story for terminating Brandon and to instead infer there was a discriminatory or retaliatory motive. That’s what we’ve been fighting to prove from day one.

“Brandon didn’t ask for this,” Van Kampen said. “He wanted to savor wins on victory lane, not in the courtroom, but MWR deprived him of that kind of glory. It’s fair to say the checkered flag is out, we’ve led the most laps through the motions phase. Now it comes down to what 12 people in the jury box decide. ”

Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl, who is defending Michael Waltrip Racing, has declined to comment about the lawsuit, saying: “We don’t try our case in the newspaper.”

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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